“You’re such a patient young man!” the older woman with gin blossoms said while her face shifted into a smile. Her jowls trembled at the motion like splotchy, flesh-colored Jell-O.

Having taken the handful of coin from the woman and correctly tallied the three quarters, five dimes, seven nickels, and forty pennies into two dollars of currency, the drive-thru worker thanked God as she finally pulled out a five to pay the remaining portion of her order. A ding and a sigh accompanied the opening of the cash register, and the money was quickly tossed inside. The cashier put on his best customer service smile and adjusted the name tag stating that “CLARENCE would like to feed you today” before turning back to the woman and handing her the order. Two Stentburgers, no tomato or onion – God forbid, the clerk thought, this woman eat anything resembling a vegetable.

The woman with gin blossoms took the bag and set it gingerly on the passenger seat of her car before turning back to the clerk. “Thank you, young man.”

The cashier grinned as if flattered and nodded. “Actually, you want a bit of advice?” he asked.

“Oh? What’s that?” Blossoms replied.

The drive-thru worker leaned in close. “What you might not know is that they have these places, called banks?”

The customer’s Jowl-Os quivered in confusion.

“Yeah. What you do is, you take your change there, and they put it in a machine, and then they give you real money, and you use that to buy sandwiches so that the cashier – that’s me here – doesn’t have to spend five minutes counting your goddamned change while a line of cars grows behind you that I then have to deal with instead of going and getting a drink of soda.”

Blossoms remained silent, shocked.

“So. Next time, you bring me paper money and no more than 99 cents of exact change, or we find out how much your corneas like ketchup and mustard. And maybe ranch dressing.” The cashier nodded sagely. “We’ll play it by ear.”

The woman stared, and the cashier put on his most genuine smile once more. “Thanks for choosing Cliff’s this morning, you have a great day!” And he continued to smile as he slammed the drive-thru service window shut and went and got a drink of soda.

Always Happy to Serve You

by Taylor Vincent

It was a translucent plastic cup, the kind that Cliff’s Eatery gave out for those that simply wanted water instead of soda from the self-serve soda machine. The cups were provided gratis, which Clarence thought was nice, considering that what was ‘just water’ still had to be paid for and chilled, et cetera. However, some people didn’t know the definition of the honor system, and so a translucent cup full of essentially stolen Mountain Dew led Clarence to approach this booth, his gaze switching between the cup and its owner until the owner, a woman with brown hair so curled and treated it looked like it was made of Mylar, stopped feeding her two year old and looked up.

Clarence smiled with obvious venom. “That’s not a healthy color for water. Must be a crossed tube or something gunking up the soda machine. I’ll take care of that for you.” The worker swiped the cup away before the woman could object, turning and walking back to the dining room soda fountain and out of sight of the woman with a smirk on his face. He rinsed the cup of Mountain Dew, spit in it, thought better of it and rinsed it again, then filled the cup with ice and water before taking it back to the customer. The kids stared and the woman uttered single syllable beginnings of objections, but none of them found purchase.

“There,” Clarence said. “Much better. Enjoy your meal.”

Mornings at Cliff’s were dead most of the time, and having so few customers that one could spit in a cup and get away with it was one of the luxuries Clarence Zimmerman enjoyed when working mornings. The primary benefit, however, was the ability to stand in the nook where the drive-thru crew worked and simply zone out for minutes at a time. The other workers never bothered Clarence because they knew they’d be snapped at if they did – all except the more daring members of the Cleaners, the gang that the dining room cleaning crew had formed. They’d sometimes catch him leaning over a counter, half asleep, and start misting him with sanitizer or play some other prank. One time Erica Weber, the head of the gang, had slammed the mop bucket into the back of his leg so hard he started swearing within earshot of the customers and had been written up for it.

The new hire walked in the door silently to find a single youth working the front desk. She got in line for his register behind a large bearded man that smelled of baking powder, moving up to the counter once the man had taken his change and waddled off to either find a seat or leaven something, she didn’t know. She smiled at the worker.

“Hi. I’m here to… start my first day, I guess?” she said softly.

The clerk ignored her. He was making a face and rubbing a couple of his fingers together. “Eew,” he said, then turned and walked over to the sink on the side wall to wash his hands. After doing so, he inspected his digits again, frowned, and walked back through the doorway into the rear of the restaurant. She followed, finally finding another employee in the twenty-four year old leaning against the counter in the corner and scratching at his splotchy beard as he stared into space. He made his eyes wander for a while to seem disinterested, eventually bringing his gaze down to her.

“I’m, ah, here to start training today?” she said. She was tiny, easily below five feet tall, and had a body like a schoolboy but a cute, smooth, featureless face. Even her nose barely stuck out, and if you shaved her head and gave her full black contacts she’d easily pass for an alien.

Clarence gestured down the hallway. “Office is back there,” he said softly.

She hesitated a moment, then nodded and crept back to the office, and Clarence was left to his own devices for a few more seconds until a scratchy “Clarence!” issued from the back. He sighed and shuffled back, where Cliff himself addressed him through a crack in the office door.

“This is Clarice Hoesly,” he said pleasantly over the clicking sound of a computer keyboard. “I want you to train her, give her a tour of the restaurant. Teach her the ropes, you know? You’re one of our best crew members, so I trust you can get her started.”

Clarence blinked, then looked over at Clarice, who smiled innocently.

“Clarence and Clarice, the up front duo!” Cliff continued. Clickety-clack. “Sound good?”

From the nose down, Clarence’s face became one of pure joy and enjoyment. “Sounds great, sir! Before the day’s out you’ll have another stellar worker like myself.” The upper part of his face, though, remained somewhere between stoic and dejected as he eyed the trainee.

“That’s what I like to hear! You two have fun!” Cliff said, then shut the door.

Clarence turned to leave, and Clarice followed. “How’d you look angry and talk happy like that?”

“Years of practice of having to sound enthusiastic to people you wish would get hit by a meteor,” Clarence replied.

“Oh. What people are those?”

“Everyone that comes through drive-thru,” Clarence said, fishing out the spare drive-thru headset and tossing it to the girl. “Put that on, you’ll find out soon enough.”

Cliff’s Eatery was a mildly successful, unassuming restaurant in Wilson for fifteen years before Clarence Zimmerman started working there at the age of eighteen, and it remained so for two more years until the freshman mayor, Norman Haroldson, had privately mentioned it in passing as having greasy, unredeemably unhealthy food. A local newsman heard about it, reported on it, and then asked owner Clifford Kaplan what he thought. And Clifford Kaplan, in what many considered shrewd and Clarence considered insane, embraced it. He changed unredeemable to shameless, unhealthy to decadent, and kept the greasy, and began playing up the complete disregard for human life contained within his menu. Soon, he introduced the Stentburger, named for the heart procedure that eating one placed you several steps closer to, and slathered with ketchup, mayo, and cheese. Next came the Cardio Chicken, deep-fried and served with barbeque sauce and bacon. He bought a milkshake machine and perfected a recipe that was closer to butter frosting than a milkshake. Before all was said and done, there was even the Haroldson, named for the mayor that started it all, a triple burger with cheddar cheese, bacon, and even onion rings right on the sandwich. The monstrosity was immediately popular with the kind of people that backlash against people who generally mind their own business while trying to stay healthy – namely, Wisconsinites.

“This is Twinkie,” Clarence said, gesturing at the cashier who was now fighting with something in his cash drawer. He didn’t look a day over twelve and dirty blond hair stuck out from beneath his employer-issued baseball cap. As Clarence and Clarice approached, they saw that the teenage boy was dredging through the quarters compartment in his cash register for something.

“Hello again,” Clarice said.

“Somewhere in here’s a sticky quarter,” Twinkie said.

Clarice stared, bug-eyed, as one would at a velociraptor who had knocked at your front door wearing a top hat and offering to sell you a bible.

“It’s making the other quarters sticky,” Twinkie said, as if this explained why he was frenziedly clawing at change.

Clarice shivered.

“You have to find the original sticky quarter,” Twinkie continued. “Otherwise, it’ll just keep making things stickier. It’s like… the head vampire. Doesn’t matter how many of the other vampires you kill, you have to kill the head one.”

Clarence gently pulled Clarice away back toward the drive-thru nook. “Don’t worry about him. He’s less crazy around customers,” Clarence said. “They actually like him. Here.” He handed her a menu. “You have to learn what we sell.”

“The customers here can be broken down into four basic groups,” Clarence said as Clarice read the chart detailing the menu options at Cliff’s. “There’s the fat people that don’t care that the food will kill them, there’s the old people who don’t care if the food will kill them, there’s the exhausted parents dragged in by kids who don’t know the food will kill them, and then there are the actual remotely intelligent people who know that the food will kill them, but are dragged in against their will by the other three groups.”

Clarice nodded and continued to read. “So no one ever comes in strictly because they know the food will kill them, but it’s a treat and they eat healthy the rest of the time, for example?”

Clarence shook his head. “Nope. At least I’ve never seen it happen.” A beep was heard in the headsets the two were wearing, and Clarence greeted the car at the drive-thru talk box outside. Clarice ignored the sound and continued to read the cooking guide until an incredibly sweet and pleasant voice caught her ears, and she looked up to see Clarence laughing as he chatted with the customer. She stood there, stunned a bit, until the order was finished and Clarence turned back around to face her, now grimacing once more.

“Oh,” she said. “For a moment, I thought you were actually being pleasant.”

“I went to high school with that prick,” Clarence said. He turned and faced the kitchen. “Wes! Overcook that guy’s stentburger!”

Someone in the kitchen growled back, and Clarence turned around. “Oh. Suppose you should meet the kitchen crew, too.”

Cliff’s Eatery was a rectangular building. The front door was situated in the middle of the long side of the rectangle; upon entering the door, the section on one’s left was the dining room, the section on the right the kitchen. The dining room took up about one half of the restaurant, a number of booths in the center sharing backs and sides while numerous two- and four-person tables lined the outside, taking advantage of the numerous plate-glass windows. While the view from outside of dozens of people eating greasy food slathered in cheese wasn’t ideal, it hadn’t been Cliff’s decision. It was a fitness center once, before it had gone out of business to be replaced with a restaurant that sold fried cheese.

Between the dining room and the rest of the restaurant was the front counter, a large, wooden structure with one opening on the opposite side of the restaurant as the door. Three cash registers were arrayed atop it. Behind the counter was the wooden façade that separated the dining room from the kitchen. It was made to look cabin-like – pine boards, exposed heads of nails, that sort of thing. One doorway and one large window broke the wall, the doorway for people and the window for meals coming up from the kitchen. The drive-thru window was just on the far side of the doorway into the back, which suited Clarence just fine, since it meant he only rarely had to deal with customers face-to-face beyond the drive-thru window itself.

On the other side of that nook was the kitchen, a large, stainless steel, U-shaped room that smelled of grease and irritability. Three surly-looking men manned it at all times, two grilling burgers and other sandwiches while one manned the fryers. Another window led from the kitchen into the back dishwashing area, which always had a pile of dirty dishes. Every night someone worked on them for three hours straight and made a dent in the pile just big enough to make room for the dishes that would come back at the end of the evening. They were cleaned often enough to avoid a health hazard, but that didn’t mean that Cliff wouldn’t order the pile hastily stashed away in the crawlspace whenever the health inspector showed up.

Past the dish area was storage and the walk-in freezer. Accounts that say that there was once a body kept in the freezer are unproven.

“That’s Wes, that’s Gus, and that’s Les,” Clarence said when the two reached the kitchen.

All three were miserable looking, middle aged men who quietly groaned in greeting and kept working. However, their product was incredible. Gus wielded his grill spatula like a Frenchmen would an epee, Wes claimed to be able to hear when a burger was done cooking, and Les was so conditioned to the fryer heat that Clarence had once watched him reach into the oil and grab an errant chicken tender with his bare hand without so much as a reaction. The show could almost be hypnotic, and Clarice, entranced, started to step into the kitchen. Les immediately turned and brandished a fryer basket, and Clarence yanked her away.

“We don’t enter the kitchen, we don’t ask how Gus’s day was, we don’t ask if Les is married, we don’t do anything. We just tell them work-related things and everyone’s left unhurt.”

Clarice swallowed hard.

The morning continued. A steady stream of customers kept an increasingly irritated Twinkie busy. Drive-thru, Clarence explained, was usually slow before lunch, when it picked up sharply and would remain busy for most of the afternoon. Between cars, he quizzed Clarice on the restaurant’s offerings.


“Third pound of beef, two slices of American cheese, ketchup, and mayo.”

“Correct. You’re a quick study. How big is a Family Fry Feast?”

“Four regulars.”


The headsets beeped once more, and Clarence took the order. “Welcome to Cliff’s, home of the stentburger. Today we’re featuring things that will kill you if you eat them.”

“What?” Clarice asked.

“Oh? What will kill me?” the customer asked.

“Everything, sir. Everything here will kill you,” Clarence said, deadpan.

Clarice pulled her jaw up from the floor. “Is that how we greet people here?!”

Clarence switched his mic off. “No, that’s how I greet people because I can get away with it. Listen.” He switched his mic back on and both of them heard the customer laughing. “Oh, well, everything kills you in the end, doesn’t it? Gimme a stentburger with grilled onions, a large rings, and a Diet Pepsi.

Clarence winked at Clarice and grinned. “You said a Diet Pepsi, sir?”

“Yeah.  Well… but the chemicals in that’ll probably kill me. Make it a regular Pepsi.”

Clarice’s jaw fell again.

“Every customer’s like that,” Clarence said. “It’s hilarious, isn’t it?”

“I think I’m gonna be sick,” Clarice said.

Clarence suppressed his chortling long enough to read the customer his total and Clarice turned around to watch the kitchen once more. Les eyed her threateningly and she stood perfectly still and averted her eyes.

“Relax,” Clarence said. “He’s not gonna rape you or anything. It’s just that, well, most of us remember when Arnold found out the hard way not to mess with the kitchen staff.”

“Who’s Arnold?” Clarice asked.

Clarence blinked. “Ah, I shouldn’t have brought that up. We… we don’t talk about what happened to Arnold,” he said.

Twinkie walked by, continuing on into the dish area. He pushed the plug into the sink, started the faucet running to fill it, and continued around the corner out of sight.

“Isn’t he the only one up front?” Clarice asked.

“Denise was due at eleven, she’s always on time,” Clarence replied, idly wiping down the drive-thru counter and filling a medium Pepsi.

“But I’ve been watching the door, no employees have come in.”

“She’s always on time,” Clarence repeated.

Clarice took the few steps out the doorway and peered over to see that indeed, an older woman was now helping customers. She turned around and walked back to find that Clarence had pursued Twinkie into the dish area. “Whatcha up to, Twinkie?” he asked half-derisively.

Twinkie didn’t respond as he grabbed a bottle of bleach and poured a bunch into the sink. He set the bottle down and stormed back up front. When he didn’t immediately return, Clarence shrugged and walked back to the drive-thru window to deal with the waiting customer, trainee in tow. It was a few moments later when a howl emanated from behind them, and Clarice turned to see Twinkie hurl his cash register’s money drawer into the sink full of bleach. Quarters bounced everywhere.

“…so just make sure you ask if it’s for here or to go and you’ll be all set,” Clarence said while Clarice experimented with buttons on the cash register. “That’s about all I can teach you. And since you’ve worked with this sort of register before, it should be rather familiar. You’ll just need time to practice, find buttons for each food item, so on.” Clarence looked at his watch. “And since it’s about 11:20, the lunch rush should be starting soon, so you should probably go up front and get a register of your own.”

Clarice nodded, took a deep breath, and sighed.

Clarence smiled at her a bit flirtatiously. “What’d you think of your teacher?” he asked.

Clarice stared up at him, the face of innocence she’d worn most of the day melting away. “I think he’s a complete prick.”

Clarence blinked. “Well, I know I’m a jerk, but—”

“Don’t give me that act,” Clarice said. “The whole ‘I’m a brutally honest guy’ thing. You’re a complete ass. It’s one thing to not care about people, but entirely another to be a tool when you’re getting paid to do the bare minimum in customer service.”

Now it was Clarence who stared, slack-jawed, and didn’t speak.

“I’m going to have to work twice as hard just to make up for your… jackassery!” Clarice said. She tossed her headset at him and stormed up front.

Clarence stood, dumbfounded for a moment, before slowly turning back to his drive-thru window and opening it. He peered out at the driver of the car. “Oh, no. You’d better be going to a casino with all of those quarters, because you’re sure as Hell not paying for this twelve dollar order with them.” He blinked, then put his customer service face back on. “No, sir. Fuck you.

Clarice took her place at the third register, next to Twinkie, at the second, who had piles of neatly arrayed dollar bills and translucent cups full of change – all but quarters – sitting on the counter. One customer reached for a twenty, and Twinkie slapped his hand and pointed like a scolding parent.

Clarice’s first customer approached, a mother trying to wrangle three children. She smiled weakly, and Clarice smiled back. Clarence’s words about exhausted parents echoed in her mind, and she tried to shove them away.

Clarice smiled as she took the order, and she smiled as she took the next. She was pleasant when she ran trays full of food out to customers, always wishing they enjoy their meal. Someone had to, she reasoned. She’d be that someone.

The afternoon passed relatively quickly. Clarence was due to go home at four, and at that time, Cliff called him back to the office. Clarence stood outside the office door and scratched at a mosquito bite on his arm.

“I’ve been watching that girl you trained today,” Cliff said. Clickity clackle. “She’s only been here one day and she’s already one of the friendliest people we have. Some of the customers even seem to like her more than Twinkie.”

“Thanks, sir,” Clarence said with feigned enthusiasm.

Clarice appeared suddenly, frowning at Clarence.

“What do you want?” the drive-thru worker asked.

“I had a question, Denise is actually helping people, and Twinkie’s busy arguing about something called ‘hexadecimals’ with a customer.”

“Anyway,” Cliff said. “You turned Clarice into a model employee in one day. I think we need to share that sort of instruction with everyone else on the crew. Clarence, I’m gonna make you a shift manager.”

The two workers blinked.

“Thank you, sir!” Clarence said, clamping a hand over Clarice’s mouth while she started punching him.

“Go home and get some rest, eh? You have a lot of teaching to do,” Cliff said.

Clarence skipped – yes, like a schoolgirl – away from the office, Clarice pursuing. “You’re no teacher!” she yelled. “I did well because someone has to make up for your horrible treatment of the customers!”

Clarence shrugged. “Either way, it worked. I get a raise!” He kept walking past the drive-thru nook and right into the mop handle that shot out from around the corner of the doorway up front. It caught him in the ribcage and pinned him against the door jamb. Faith, the Cleaner on the other end of the mop, drove it at him a little harder, glaring at him. Well, one eye glared at him. The other wobbled in its socket and appeared to be glaring at his knees.

Clarence yanked the mop handle from her grip, tossing it aside onto the floor while Clarice watched, shocked. “Oh, you and your band of misfits don’t get to screw with me anymore,” he growled, straightening his clothes and dusting himself off. “Make sure you tell the others. And make sure you say it to Linda’s good ear.” He grimaced and continued toward the door. Clarice came to her senses.

“Congrats on the raise!” she yelled. “Have fun buying even more malt liquor and hardcore pornography!”

Clarence turned.  “Pornography? Hardly. I have the first season of Designing Women on DVD, that’s all I need,” he deadpanned.

Clarice threw up a little in her mouth. “You’re kidding,” she said.

“Am I?” Clarence asked, and vanished out the door.

1 Response to “Always Happy to Serve You”

  1. 1 Jen August 27, 2009 at 12:04 PM

    Um, so… the description of the burgers and onion rings and unhealthy fried food made me hungry. I read it between noon and 1:00 pm without having eaten anything since dinner yesterday.

    “…a triple burger with cheddar cheese, bacon, and even onion rings right on the sandwich….”

    I don’t even like onion rings!

    It is like my favorite Paula Deen video – the more disgusting it seems to other people, the more wonderful and delicious it sounds. I’m not a glutton or anything, but my taste buds just aren’t that sophisticated. See my other comments for the reasons why.

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