“Zugzwang” by David James Poissant

Cover Tweed's #1Where’s the Beef Lady comes in Saturdays for lunch, and this Saturday’s no exception. She’s not really the lady from the commercial—that woman was old thirty years ago, and, if I had to bet on it, I’d bet she’s dead—but this is Wendy’s, and this woman’s ornery, and, given that her countenance is favorable to, if not quite a carbon copy of, the wizened crone from the 1984 TV ad, we call her Where’s the Beef Lady behind the counter, which is to say behind her back.

The counter where people order is greasy and unpolished and dirty in the corners because dust sticks to the grease and forms a kind of dust/grime rind where the counter meets the wall. Most months, we get eighties on our health inspection, just high enough to keep us from getting fined. The B-minuses arrive with a regularity that is startling and to which I attribute the greased palm of the county inspector, plus the fact that paying off said inspector costs less than any fine and way less than what it would cost to hire enough help to keep this place spick-and-span, or, if not spick-and-span, at least clean enough that there wouldn’t be a dust/grime rind where the counter meets the wall.

I’m not the one who pays off the inspector. I don’t do much of anything. I stand at the register. I push buttons and swipe people’s cards. When Ty or Dezzie or Sam or Bonnie in back calls Order up!, I get the food and put it on a tray. I used to fill cups with soda, but then they put the drink machines out there with the tables. Now I don’t even fill cups anymore. A lot of time on my hands, is what I’m getting at, and in that time I notice things.

Like how Bonnie and Dezzie sneak off for cigarettes when it’s dead, or how Sam’s bathroom breaks consistently surpass the length of any normal human dump. Or how our shift manager, Reggie, half the time has hickeys down his neck and an earlobe that looks positively chewed on. Reggie’s tall and bucktoothed and hits on all the girls but me. It’s not because I’m gross or fat or anything. It’s because the first time he hit on me I gave him a look with lawyers in it, and since then he’s kept his hands to himself and to the other girls.

Anyway, today, Where’s the Beef Lady’s all up in my face. She’s always kind of up in my face, but this Saturday even more so than usual. She’s waving a white-and-foil wrapper, fixing to scream the dentures from her head. Where’s the Beef Lady always gets the Double Stack, which is the meat equivalent of two Jr. Cheeseburgers or one of the big Singles, except that it’s on the Right Price Right Size Menu, so it’s only like a buck and change, plus it’s got double cheese on it at no extra charge. It’s the most meat and cheese for your money at Wendy’s. Why more people haven’t figured this out, I have no idea. Most people come in and their eyes go glassy in seconds. They gape at the big board, then just order whatever there’s the biggest picture of. When I ask if they’d like a bigger drink with that, they always say yes.

But Where’s the Beef Lady knows the score. Probably she’s living off social security, or maybe she’s a war widow from, like, a war a really long time ago, which, if that’s the case and she’s been alone these nigh unto fifty years, I feel bad for her and all, but that still doesn’t mean I want her waving her white-and-foil wrapper in my face and yelling at me about something with the word chicken in it.

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