Burger Queen

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Quick fingers slide in plastic gloves,
bill counting an arduous task in the time of COVID.
Better gloves, latex and cornstarch, exist,
but why use the good stuff
when gloves change every ten minutes?

Dishwater, paper towel, plastic glove hands,
sweaty and scalded and abraded,
cracked and bleeding living leather, prickled dinosaur skin
soothed only by expired diaper rash cream
smeared on every night, covered with dark teal
gloves soaking up whatever my skin cannot.

Nonskid shoes are a necessity,
cleaned weekly with a toothpick
between the treads. Memory
foam insoles even more so.
Shift’s end, week’s end, the slightest pressure
like walking barefoot over gravel.
Eighteen blissful hours before my return.

Break, day, break, then four
consecutive days of aching feet, frantic movement,
unchoreographed dance between understaffed stations.
Fetch this, fetch that, do this, do that.
“I need two more baskets of fries down!”
Sometimes, they even said “please.”

There have been multiple orders of
seventeen bacon cheeseburgers,
value no-salt fries where the fry-
mangling tongs barely fit in the bag.
Some customers demand we drop
everything and make their food fresh. The worst,
one hundred chicken nuggets, fresh by default.

Back cash, confirming orders and handling payment,
not to mention Dishwashing Mountain,
was my specialty. I was a trainer there, though never trained,
simply sent on my second day after
the first-day tutorial at the front counter.

I trained meat, too, the two
rows of four Whoppers, six burgers,
or as many Impossibles as they needed.
I was the only one who cared about bacon,
the timed dance between cooked and raw,
maintaining the cycle and the hope
of cooking all 750 strips a day.

Mostly I ran the fryers,
priority list changing faster than the clock,
the carefully estimated amounts
poured into baskets, the identity
of various breaded shapes and colors,
the frantic rush of thirty-six
pounds of fries gone in ninety minutes,
the hand-breaded chicken of doom.

I put on the plastic apron with my plastic gloves limiting
grip and sensation, immediately coated
with chicken juice to which flour clings like static.
Batter smears, drawing in more flour until
I had hand-breaded gloves as well as chicken.

Screaming timers must be delegated
during such a project, but no one else
feels them driving into their skull, their soul,
demanding immediate action.
They are mine, I should deal with them.

It takes six hours to earn a break.
Five? Out of luck. Good luck
with your blood sugar. At least
if you get one, it’s a half
hour. Fifteen minutes isn’t long
enough to order, make, and eat
a meal. In a rush, you’d return without even seeing
your food. Sometimes without ordering.
And what good is that?

By the end, I was glad to leave.
I wanted hair too short to pull back,
feet going forty-eight hours without shoes,
a day off that didn’t feel like catching up,
clothes that didn’t leave a film of grease on my arms.
An absence of timers, a chance
to learn my resting heart rate.

I returned for a meal a month later, and learned
they miss me, but I do not miss them.

Katherine Wiles is a senior Creative Writing major at Cumberland who finds her classes to be a great source of inspiration. Her work has been published by Wingless Dreamer, Capsule Stories, and the Stilwater Review.

NOVUS Literary and
Arts Journal
Lebanon, TN