By Michael Narkunski
I used to beg to go to McDonald’s. I wanted my Happy Meal. My fries. I wanted lime-green pickles stuck to the bun. Little onion pieces poking through ketchup. The smell that made my mouth cry. The cardboard box. The toy.
Of course, the toy. It was the distraction, the reward, and most important. Mom was sure they were going to be worth a lot one day. So when everything was wrong, when I felt alone, or sad for some reason I didn’t know, I at least had it. Usually, the girl one was what I wanted: a mini-Barbie, a Catwoman, a pony. Other times not. But if it was, I geared myself up to say it. Despite the scary feeling, taught myself to say:
“Hey, Mr. Person?”
The man behind the counter would turn around. Four- or five- or six-year-old me, blue eyes with curly brown hair, looking up.
“Can I help you?” he’d ask.
“Um, can I have the other one?” I’d say, holding out a car, a Transformer, a rocket.
Then the worker, the adult, the Santa-for-now, after some thought, but not much, would reach under and swiftly come back up.
“You mean this?” he’d confirm. Or she. (A little cheer in the voice if she.)
And nodding my head, it was understood that indeed I did. I wanted this, and I’d give back the other in its plastic, knowing suddenly, with things right, that the day would be good.
School and other kids weren’t there. Home and fighting weren’t there. Confusion wasn’t there, and I could now sit down with my toy and my food and purely think to myself:
I’m a happy, normal boy.
It’s four in the morning and I want a goddamn burger.
I knew this would happen. I knew I should’ve eaten before, but I never learn, do I? Every time I go hunting for my one-night white knight, it’s the same sick story. Now, if I stop to eat, it’s going to take a million more excruciating seconds to get home, and I’ll fall asleep on the express bus, ending up at the ass-end of New York City, never to be seen again.
I’m starving, though, so there’s really no choice. Just like there was no choice in spending that much money at the bar. In circling it and three others round and round for the past eight hours. In going week after week, searching for some ridiculous validation, some salve for the years of suppression/oppression/depression from this dismissal, this doom they say is supposed to “get better,” but not all better, just not-as-bad statistic better, or law passed by the skin of its teeth better, or Brokeback Mountain in faintest rear-view, better.
But all right, that’s enough self-pity bullshit.
Where’s the fucking McDonald’s? I wonder.
Barely for a moment though, because of course the golden arches pop up almost immediately and I hurry inside. I don’t even mind the fluorescent blare because the lights tell me to wake up. To convey my order with words from my throat, and that if I do so, I will be served, like anybody else. Served, and grateful, and complete.
Should I order a Happy Meal? It’s really the cheapest way to get a burger, fries, and a drink—all my necessary items, plus maybe even get the cute—
“That’s not what I ordered!” a shout suddenly rings out.
I look at the counter where an old man is irate. The scene looks wrong as a green-skinned orange.
“Don’t you know the difference between chocolate and vanilla?” he continues, gesticulating madly. I want to cover my ears. I want to crouch down and shout, “Shhhh!”
“Here you go, sir,” the man behind the counter says, all ready with the replacement milkshake. I can’t help but be proud of his swiftness—a sense of déjà vu.
“Oh, there you go, finally!” the old man reacts. “Now, was that so hard?”
The worker is heavy-lidded, accentuated by the cornrows pulling slightly at his temples, but clearly alert. “No, it wasn’t, sir,” he says back. “Have a nice night.” This kind of thing must happen a lot at this hour, I realize.
I watch as the customer goes to the condiment counter for a straw, and glad the episode is over, I go back to looking at the menu. Sucking air into my cheeks, and still feeling the acid from the alcohol, I decide on a Number 2 meal. I bargain that it’s essentially a Happy Meal with an extra burger, and that maybe I can even—
“You’re not really a man, are ya?”
My throat clenches when I hear it. I feel chilled.
Am I standing with my hands on my hips again? I thought I took care of that habit. Or did someone, somehow, hear my voice? I look slowly to my left and see the old man again, fiddling with his straw.
“Look at you, stuck behind your counter. You’re not a man!” he shouts. “I can say anything to you and nothing will happen!”
At first, I’m relieved—that it’s not about me, that I can stay hidden. But the feeling dissipates quickly as I look back at the worker and see it: the unmistakeable pain and confusion in his eyes. The rest of him stays stoic, strong, and polite, hands holding the register. I know that move too well, though; I feel the break. The crush of having an idea that venom is coming your way, yet still be struck when it happens.
This is part of life. It may even be a part that makes you stronger. But this is not the place, I decide. And a young McDonald’s worker? A young, black McDonald’s worker? No… that is the wrong goddamn person.
I plan. There’s only a smattering of people sitting around behind—no one will catch the damage. All I need to do is dart over, take the milkshake, and pour it all over the old man’s head. “Nothing will happen to you, huh? Can say whatever you want, huh?” I’ll taunt while dodging his flailing arms. Then I’ll quickly bounce the cup off his decrepit face and run out the door.
I’m still tipsy and brave, but my breathing gets heavy. My adrenaline begins to rise as I prepare. Meanwhile, I can faintly hear the old man laughing through the ringing in my ears, “Fifteen dollars an hour you think you should get? What a joke. What a joke you are. You and all you little fast food babies.” I look around and see I’m still the only one paying attention to the worker who’s staring into the middle distance. The old man then relishes in slurping his drink, practically daring me with it.
I exhale heavily out my mouth to activate my parasympathetic nervous system, like my therapist said to do when my anxiety is up. I do it again and again. Then I move my feet like they’re in mud up to my calf. I step steadily and with great purpose.
And soon enough, with a few more steps, my feet turn away and hit the cement out the door, leaving the situation totally behind. Leaving it having nothing, at all, to do with me.
It’s an eerily smooth bus ride back to my home where I still live with my mother, where I’m a comfortable grad student, able to quit my fast food job after one teenage summer. “You did the right thing,” my ex-boyfriend texts, when I tell him what happened. “It wasn’t worth the trouble.”
But I know for a fact it was worth the trouble. I know it would have simply been correct to have the old man’s reaction result in an equal and opposite reaction. Worth anything to have that employee, eternally dumped on, know he is appreciated for doing his job and for doing it well. That he’s definitely a man and should never, ever be made to feel ashamed. Sure, there’s the possible slips, injuries, and arrests that may have ensued from my retaliation—but I know deep down nothing would really happen to me. After all, don’t I know the difference between chocolate and vanilla?
Fine, maybe it was for the best. Perhaps the worker would be embarrassed, feel patronized. Maybe he just wanted the problem to go away, or it was all a projection; I can’t know completely what it’s like. Still, the sound of silence is a horrible one I can’t shake. Because now, not only was the young man behind the counter perhaps deprived of his special prize, of some sense of support in a vulnerable moment, but also I’m forced to open my drawer—the one full of McDonald’s toys—and know that despite what my mom thought, and despite how much good they’ve done for me once upon a time…
They’re worthless now.
MICHAEL NARKUNSKI is working on his MFA and book of essays at Stony Brook University. His writing has appeared in Out, Narratively, The Advocate, Hippocampus Magazine, and on stage in NYC. You can follow his constant existential crisis @lampshadenark