The Observer


Words and illustrations by Corey Pandolph
Words and illustrations by Corey Pandolph

“Glen, could you come off your break to help – we have a bus!” is the cry to the back of the fast-food kitchen. An influx of teenage soccer players has just been corralled into the maze leading to the cash registers. The sweaty, grass-stained youth bark out potential orders, changing their minds in mid-sentence to match a friend’s bigger, better order. Way behind the hungry hyenas stands the coach, slumped over and clearly beaten down by life. Spotting him, the soccer brats all crowd around this man and start barking their orders anew. Coach’s face is expressionless as he stares straight ahead, nodding at each jittery and hastened comment. 

Coach is about 6’5″, but his bad posture makes him look about 5’4″. He has the appearance of someone who was once athletic, and I imagine he was captain of this very town’s high school football team– probably broke passing records and married his cheerleader girlfriend right out of school. They moved into a two-bedroom apartment 40 miles down the road so they could attend the state college. His pom-pom girl majored in dentistry and dropped out after two semesters. She’s now the assistant manager at a Big Lots department store. Coach continued on to a Bachelor’s in Physical Education and was able to land the middle school phys-ed position right after graduation. 

I can see them having a comfortable marriage – some bumps along the way, a couple kids; but overall, a vanilla ride. It now looks like Coach is more tired than anything, his bad posture the result of a sports injury or crappy office chair. But just when he seems completely fed up with the kids’ excess energy, he spontaneously swipes the cash out of a hungry young player’s hand and starts playing keep-away. He’s a good mentor and, most likely, a good father.

Meanwhile, behind the counter, a different story unfolds. Glen has shown up from his break, still chewing his lunch, obviously disgruntled that he has to actually work for his money. The manager, Don, is in full managerial mode, pants hiked, greasy comb-over falling apart into his eyes. A boney brush of the hand through his hair and a yelp at the overweight African American fry girl and all is right in his world. 

I wonder about Don’s world. Is this it for this vexed little man? Was his master plan always to manage a fast-food restaurant? Was he obsessed at an early age with the idea of sub-par chow for the masses? What if each day at lunch recess, Don went and purchased a different item from his favorite fast-food place, then dissected each item and listed its ingredients, assembly order and selling points? After recording his findings in a spreadsheet, Don would determine the most marketable items and mail his research to the chain’s corporate office. At first, the corporation’s higher-ups dismiss these letters as “nut-job” and deposit them in the file of material saved for opening jokes at the holiday banquet. However, after Don is hired and the “Oh… that was you!” comments fade, his ideas propel him to become manager of the chain’s fifth largest restaurant in the state.

Don looks far from that eager, young go-getter now. His face is drawn, his hair thin and his eyes sunk deep into their sockets. He looks to be about 50, but I’ll bet he’s 36. And yet, somehow, Don still loves his job. Even in the midst of this teenage-hormonal-tornado rush, he still offers a joke and a smile to each customer as he calls out the order number and swiftly hands them their tray. You have to respect a man who loves his work this much, no matter how tragic it may look. 

Don has no ring on his finger and he seems like the type of guy who fears women like I fear killer bees. I’d say he’s a computer-dater, but I recently found out 20 percent of the people that sign up for those sites get tagged as “unmatchable.” Don looks like the poster boy for “unmatchable.” Nevertheless, I bet there has been some love in his life. Perhaps a drunken night at a corporate conference, a vulnerable intern and a bottle of twist-off champagne. Phone calls and letters followed, but the intern was young and now refers to poor Don as “the mistake.” 

And so it goes for Don, as he opens another register to help his sweating, pimple-pocked and flustered cashier. He steps up to the register just in time to take Coach’s order. Here are two men, tired and beaten by life, meeting to complete another mundane task. Years ago, this encounter would have gone the stereotypical oversized-jock-mocks-short-geek-at-his-crappy-job route. Instead, the two journeymen lock eyes just for a moment and pause. A smirk emerges from each man’s face, as though they understand one another’s crooked road to mediocrity and instantly develop a mutual respect. With a simultaneous nod, Don and Coach then turn back to continue their chosen lives, both still smirking, a hint of satisfaction in their tired eyes.

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