1: Minimum Wagesicles

Dorito Marie Thomasson lay on her side on the cold, slightly sticky aluminum floor of the walk-in freezer at Pandora’s Pizza.  Her arms were behind her back, her hands tied to her ankles, and the stupid skirt she was wearing had ridden up so high on her thighs she couldn’t pull it down even by sliding across the floor.  All in all, it was an undignified way to end the day.  Dori didn’t normally get hung up about dignity, but right now she was noticing it.

At least no one was in the mood to make fun of her.  Her boyfriend Smile was sitting upright, wrists tied to one of the cooling racks stacked high with salad fixings and pizza toppings.  His face was glazed with blood from a gash he’d acquired by trying not to be tied up.  Some of his long black hair stuck to it, and it had flowed down around his aquiline nose in a way that was half “Braveheart”-noble and half Bruce Lee-melodramatic.  In the other corner, Amber was hog-tied like Dori was, and perhaps even less dignified because she’d wet herself.  The cooler was filled with a sharp, ammoniac odor that Dori was going to forever remember as Stupid Girl Fear-Pee.  Amber had been whimpering for ten solid minutes; neither Dori nor Smile had any reassuring words at the moment.

Walter, the night manager, had been taken away with a bag tied over his head about a minute before Amber started whimpering.  The four men who had just robbed the restaurant said they’d release him in an hour, once they’d gotten away.  If someone called the cops, Walter was going to eat a bullet.

All things considered that wasn’t much of a threat.  Walter was kind of a dick.  Everyone in the cooler–two waitresses and a delivery driver, thank goodness there hadn’t been any customers–had a reason to personally hate Walter.  Dori didn’t, but that was only because she’d made a conscious decision not to.

Dori was thinking about the little white panic button that lived inside the office, just outside the cooler’s door.  It was the size of a large aspirin, and looked kind of like a doorbell button.  A wire came out of it and went into the wall just above the phone line, and presumably at the other end of it were all the cops in Ypsilanti, Michigan.  Dori longed to press that button.  The implications for Walter didn’t matter, because if she could press that button, someone would come get them out of the cooler, and she could pull her skirt down.  

On the other side of the small space, Smile was pulling furiously at his bonds, trying to free himself.  His efforts were punctuated with grunts of effort.  Soon he was roaring, a Middle Eastern William Wallace, cords standing out in his neck.  The cooler vibrated with the power of his barbaric yawp.  Even Amber fell silent, watching Smile struggle.  His face was a blood- and sweat-sheened mask of exertion, his teeth gritted.  His thick black hair hung in his face.  His kelly-green Pandora’s shirt had lost half its buttons and flapped.  The shelves and floor shook as he tugged and shouted with all of his might.

And then he succeeded.  Sort of.  With a loud crunch, the post Smile was tied to came loose from the wall shelves and floor, and punched a hole in the ceiling.  Torn loose from the center beam, the top shelf collapsed forward, spilling several tubs of Mixed Greens salad and seven quarts of ranch dressing onto Dori, who was not in a position to dodge the avalanche.  “Owshitfuck!” she yelled as she was beaned by a tub of salad.  Fortunately, the considerably heavier tubs of dressing missed her; unfortunately, when they hit the floor and burst open, she was showered in ranch.  

Silence.

“Shit,” Dori said, lifting her head out of a puddle of dressing and trying to blink the heavy goo out of her eyes.  It burned.  “Did that do it?  Are you loose?”

He tried to move his wrists.  “No.”

She put her head back down.  

Smile recognized the you’re a moron silence.  “I had to try,” he said defensively.

Dori closed her eyes and visualized the panic button some more.  Amber whined.

The real irony was that it had started out as a perfectly boring, mid-November Thursday night.  Thursdays were usually slow enough to sleepwalk through, and Dori was all but doing that.  She had pulled a four to eleven, which meant she’d get to leave half an hour before they closed the dining room for the night.  That was good, since she’d been up till four in the morning the night before and was tired, but it also sucked because that meant that Amber would be closing, which meant that the place would be a mess in the morning.  Amber was smart enough to know that if she pretended to be too stupid to get everything cleaned properly, someone else would do it for her.  Dori wondered if she was the only person who saw that Amber did this on purpose.  It was Amber’s whole approach to life–making it so someone else would do all the hard stuff for her.  Dori had never confronted Amber with this, mostly on account of Amber’s urban redneck boyfriend Mark, who worked on and off as a cook and if Amber whined to him, was more likely to slash Dori’s tires in the night than confront her directly.  And slashed tires were a pain in the ass, especially considering that Amber wouldn’t change.

The entire restaurant had been quiet and mellow, with only a few delivery orders coming in and no one in the dining room.  The busiest area was in back, where Gabriel was washing dishes like there was no tomorrow.  To be specific, he was rinsing the biggest chunks of debris off of the dishes before shoving them into the automatic dishwasher, but it was still nasty, wet, dirty work that most of them avoided and were grateful for the three nights a week Gabriel worked, since all he did was wash dishes.  No one had ever asked, but it was universally assumed that Gabriel had some mild form of autism.  No matter how busy or dead it was, he washed dishes with a speed and fervor that bordered on the fanatical.  He washed as if he was on a sinking ship and had to finish before he was allowed into a lifeboat.  He usually talked or sang to himself while he did it, too.  Dori sometimes recognized snatches of sitcom dialogue, repeated endlessly.  Tonight’s favored clip was, “Oh, I wouldn’t say that!” interspersed with, “Well, why don’t you take him to soccer practice?”

Gabriel’s other claim to fame was his memory, which the delivery drivers as a small society unto themselves found to be high entertainment.  Smile, Bill, and the others spent hours playing with Gabriel’s brain.  “Okay, when’s my birthday?” Smile asked him while hanging around the back of the restaurant between deliveries.  Bill was just outside the propped-open back door, letting cold air in and having a smoke.

“April seventeenth,” Gabriel said cheerfully, never missing a break in his washing.  He spoke with a boundless cheerfulness; nothing anyone ever did seemed to bother him.

“And when’s Dori’s birthday?”

“Leave him alone, Smile, would you?” Dori called.  It bugged her that her stupider coworkers treated Gabriel like a sideshow act.  It bugged her even more that her boyfriend was among them.

“November first,” Gabriel replied in a voice that bordered on singsong.  “That’s a fact, November first is Dori’s birthday.  Dori’s birthday was a week ago.”

“And what’s the area of France?” Bill asked from outside.

“Two hundred twelve thousand, eight hundred and forty-one square miles.  That’s a fact!”

“Dude, you have a delivery up,” Dori said to Bill, putting an end to the game.  Bill tossed the rest of his smoke and came inside to pick up the pizza and delivery address.  When he’d gone, she admonished Smile lightly.  “You guys should let Gabriel work.”

“Aw, he doesn’t care.  Gabriel, does it–“

She stopped him.  “Seriously, Smile, it bugs me.”

“Well get over it.”  He wagged his head like a sassy fifteen-year old to let her know he was joking, then dropped into the bent folding chair in the “office,” which was actually just a desk in the short hall leading to the walk-in.  “I am so fucking bored,” he said, looking at the ceiling.

Walter appeared behind Dori.  “If you’re bored, Smile, you can fold boxes.”

Smile gasped naked exasperation.  Box folding was one of the many tasks at Pandora’s that was beneath his skills as a driver.  “What the hell?  There’s boxes stacked to the ceiling up front.”

“So we’ll be prepared for tomorrow,” Walter said.  “If there aren’t any deliveries after that, I want you to mop the bathrooms and inside the walk-in, if you don’t mind.”

“We have got to get a real janitor for this place,” Smile said.  He hated mopping the floors.  Walter was the only manager who insisted that the delivery drivers do it, and it wasn’t even their job.  Technically the waitstaff was supposed to do it, after close.  Dori had no intention of pointing this out, boyfriend or not.

Dori wasn’t immune, either.  “Dori, why don’t you refill the salad bar and check all of the salt and peppers for me?”

She knew it was no good arguing with him; she just shrugged and went.  Besides, she was getting paid for it.  It never made sense to her that everyone else complained about reasonable requests.  Shit, it was a job, not recess.  When she got out there, a small group had come in and Amber had already seated them.  They were mostly big guys, young except for one.  Dori guessed that they were athletes of some kind.  She liked to make up little speculative stories about the Pandora’s customers.  These guys were almost certainly football players, but that was too easy.  They needed some special sport.  Okay, then they were jai-alai players, visiting from, um, Portugal.  Were there blond Portuguese?  Two of them were blond, one a redhead, the rest boring brunettes like her.  She figured that there had to be blonds in Portugal, and odds were in favor of at least a few of them being as gigantic as the guy in the middle.  She wasn’t sure they played jai alai there, though.  Anyway, the older guy was their coach, and they were here to experience American pizza for the first time.  Welcome to Pandora’s, she thought, gathering the crustiest salt shakers so they could be cleaned off and refilled.

The biggest jai-alai player gave her a funny look–oops, she was staring at them.  Dori gave him a little smile, hoping it wouldn’t go unnecessarily to his ego, and went back to her work.

Fixing the salt shakers did nothing to make the evening go faster; it didn’t take long enough.  Soon Dori was back at the register like she had been before the guys started playing with Gabriel, looking out at the dining room.  She was bored but at the same time she didn’t mind the inactivity too much.  Dori wasn’t thinking any great deep thoughts or composing sonnets as she leaned over the counter (although it occurred to that if she wanted to, she could).  It was just a sort of mental freefall.  She liked it; she could think about forty little things at once without devoting any conscious effort to it.  She did her best thinking in the shower, but this was close.

Smile, as far as she could tell, had no appreciation for this.  As soon as he finished a haphazard mopping job, he came to the opposite side of the counter like a customer, grinning as if he had every intention of teasing her.  This could take many forms:  taking toothpicks out of the dispenser and making words or tiny buildings with them, pushing buttons on the register, or simply acting like he was trying to look down her shirt.  Dori returned his smile.  “Dude, did you see who’s out there?” he asked.

Thanks to a funny trick of Pandora’s acoustics, most of the noises from the dining room were audible at the counter but the reverse was not true.  It was a handy trick that enabled Dori to put down bills and check on tables almost before they called for her.  None of the other waitresses had worked at Pandora’s long enough to learn this trick, which wasn’t saying much; she’d been here two years but it had only taken her a month to figure it out.  It also made it easy to talk about customers who were less than ten feet away.

“Who, the jai-alai players?”

He knew Dori’s game, and laughed.  “Yeah.  That big red-haired guy is Chris Sinclair.”

“I should know who that is?” she said blankly.  “Ohh, it’s a football thing, isn’t it?”  One of Smile’s more embarrassing habits was his fanatic following of football–pro, college, high school, it didn’t matter.  Dori had never imagined herself dating someone who screamed at the television over sports taking place in another state.

He was happy that she was able to identify Chris Sinclair as a player, even though she had no idea who he was.  “He was U of M’s starting quarterback last year.  He was the reason they were ranked #1 in the Big Ten.  Then over the summer, he got himself stabbed.  He can’t play any more.”

Dori had actually heard of him, come to think of it.  “Oh yeah!  Didn’t he like date-rape some girl, and then they found him not guilty, and then she went back and stabbed him in the balls at a party or something?  I heard about that.”

Smile nodded.  “I figured if there was anyone you’d have heard of, it would be him.”

“Genital stabbings are a personal interest of mine,” she said.

“He lost a kidney, too.  I think that’s why he can’t play football.  His career’s completely over.”

Dori nodded, looking over Smile’s shoulder and out the front windows.  “It’s a tragedy of Herculean proportions,” she said absently.  “Did they ever find the girl who did it?”

“Oh, listen to you.  You don’t even give a shit.”

“Not really.  It’s not as though there’s a shortage of football players.  And he doesn’t look like he’s doing too badly.”  She glanced back at Chris Sinclair, who was looking back at her again.  She noticed for the first time that there were crutches on the floor next to his chair.  Dori looked over her shoulder for Amber, who had disappeared into the office.  “Go find Amber,” she said.  “They keep looking up here at me, I think they want their waitress.”

“You guys need a call button or something.”

“Yeah, I can see that getting wired up,” Dori said sarcastically.  “Don’t give Walter any damn ideas.  Where did he go, anyway?”  The manager’s absence was like a cloud being lifted.

“Out to check the dumpster, probably.”  Not only did Walter routinely check the dumpster to make sure that all of the trash had made it inside, he would look into the dumpster to be sure that no one had thrown away any pizza pans or tray covers.  It wouldn’t have been so annoying if he didn’t make such a big deal out of checking, as if he had to make sure that no one else was screwing up, and everyone knew that the only person who had ever mistakenly thrown away a pizza pan was Walter himself.  “Sometimes I miss Maureen,” Dori said mostly to herself.  Maureen had been the night manager before Walter.  She had been cool, but had gotten a better deal from Hudson’s.

Smile fetched Amber and sent her out to the jai-alai players’ table.  There was a rush of cold air, and the back door banged loudly shut.  Walter huffed and stomped his feet.  “It’s freezing out there, you guys.  Getting to be winter,” he added with a buddy-buddy grin straight out of a corporate team-building workshop.  “Smile, you probably want to make sure you zip your coat when you go out again.”

“Yes, Mother,” Smile said.  

His sarcasm was lost on Walter.  “Let Bill know when he gets back that he can probably take off early if he wants to.  It’s not going to get any busier than this.”

“Will do.”  Smile turned his attention back to Dori.  “You have tomorrow off?”  She nodded.  “What’re you going to do?”

“I dunno.  Maybe go look for a car.  I have enough money saved, and Aunt Andrea says I should get a new car.  I got a bunch of money for my birthday.”  Dori drove an ancient brown Oldsmobile that was about two-thirds rust, and wouldn’t start if the temperature was above eighty-five degrees.  The car held seven people easily, though, so she was a popular designated driver.

“What are you gonna look for?”

“I dunno.  I just figured I’d look.  I never looked for a new car before.  I’ll see if Brian wants to go with me.  You want to do something after work?”

Smile nodded.  “Come and meet me.  I get off at ten.”

“Cool.”

And that had seemed like it would be the course of the night, a more or less typical late-autumn slog.  But of course now it was looking like they might not be getting together after all.  An hour after the jai-alai players and Chris Sinclair had left, Walter had sent Gabriel home when his mother showed up at 10:45 sharp to pick him up, like she always did.  Half an hour after that, four men with ski masks had marched into Pandora’s, stuck a gun in Walter’s face before pulling a bag over his head, and herded everyone else into the cooler.  Smile had tried to jump one of them and gotten whacked across the face with a gun butt.  

The apprehension and worry for him that blossomed in Dori’s heart when he went sprawling across the floor was all but gone by the time he turned the salad dressing over on her.  Maybe it was overly mean, but she sort of wished he was unconscious.  She didn’t want him hurt, just temporarily out of the hero business.

He had started wrestling with the support beam again.  “It won’t do any good,” she told him, spitting ranch dressing out of her mouth.  She hated ranch dressing.  Well, that wasn’t completely true, she didn’t mind it, but she preferred it in her mouth, not on her skin and clothes.  Smile continued struggling.  “Smile!  Fucking forget it, dude.  The inside latch is broken, remember?  Even if you get free and don’t kill me by knocking that whole shelf down on me, we can’t open the door anyway.”

“Shit.  You’re right.  Hellp!” he yelled.  His throaty voice was deafening in the tiny, metal-walled cooler.  “Heellllp, goddammit!” he yelled, putting as much volume as an on-again, off-again career as lead singer for a garage band had taught him how to.

“Are we gonna be stuck in here until morning?” Amber asked in a tiny, teary voice.  “We’ll die in here.  We’ll run out of air and die!  What are we going to do, Dori?”

Dori wanted to tell her she didn’t fucking know, wanted to ask why suddenly she was in charge, but the fear in Amber’s voice took the sarcasm out of her.  “Maybe when they let Walter go, he’ll find a phone and tell someone to come get us.  I’m sure he will.”

“Man, I hope they kill that little shit,” Smile said.

“If we’re in here until the morning shift comes in, then we’ll have to assume they did,” Dori said with a resigned sigh.

“Fuck that.  Helllllp!”

Amazingly enough, there was a tentative knock at the cooler door.  “Hello?” an unfamiliar voice asked.