|In Search of Excellence at Taco Viva
On the morning of her eighteenth birthday, Paula's mother fried sausage and drizzled pancake batter into the shape of dinosaurs. Today, she told Paula, she'd drive her as far as ValleyMart Shopping Center to find a job. Or if Paula didn't find one, she'd drive her to Sisters of Mercy where she would help her mother change bedpans and wipe old people's butts. Paula's Daddy sat at the kitchen table in his underwear. "See this?" he said, holding up her dinner plate and dropping it to the linoleum. "We're breaking your plate. Get a job."
The dish bounced, but from that day forward Paula would pay sixty dollars for room and board, every week. No pay, no stay, they told her.
Paula slumped into the backseat of the rusted station wagon. She glared out the window and hummed a dirge while her mother drove her to the strip mall two miles away. "When you make your own money, you can do lots of things," her mother told her. "Take vacations, buy things. Remember when we went to Kansas last summer and saw your Uncle Jim?" Paula didn't answer. She'd rather be home watching Maury Povich find cheating daddies.
Her mother stopped the car in front of the Hallmark card shop and Paula got out without saying a word. "Don't forget," her mother yelled out the window, "if you can't get a job you can work with me."
Paula figured she had four chances to save herself from a future of butt wiping: the Hallmark shop, the shoe store, the hardware store, or the new taco joint.
The first three tries were a bust. Paula asked politely, "You don't need any help, do you?" But no one did. The toothpick-thin man at the hardware store only looked up from the nuts and bolts section long enough to turn up his nose at her before he continued sorting the screws. She wished she'd washed her hair, at least her hands, or asked someone to give her interviewing tips.
With only one more chance to land a job, Paula decided she'd better change her approach at the taco joint. She figured if she acted interested enough that someone might hire her. Whenever her grandfather rambled on and on about being a hero in some war, Paula watched his hands as they danced in the air, listened real close, and he always tossed her a couple of bucks.
She sat up straight and stared into the eyes of the owner of the taco place, Buddy Wojinski, who talked for over an hour about himself and his days as an executive at some mattress chain. Good thing Paula had passed her drama class in high school and could look fascinated even when bored. Her teacher said her ceaseless, quizzical look with her wide eyes and arched eyebrows gave her an edge. Paula hadn't told her that it was from having dry contact lenses.
The strategy worked: Buddy Wojinski said she impressed him with "her ability to focus" and he gave her the Taco Viva Training Manual to take home and study--called it his bible, one he had created by combining his years of experience at Mattress Queen Headquarters with his critical thinking skills. She thought Buddy looked liked he'd bounced on a few springs. A soft taco with his floury skin and bulging belly, shredded hair that poked out at the top, and his tomato eyes. Every time he made a point he looked at himself in the mirror, sometimes checking his teeth and making squishy sounds with his spit.
On her first day at Taco Viva, Paula's father dropped her off a few minutes late. She wore black clothes just like her new boss told her to. She had struggled buttoning the only nice pair of pants she owned, and the strawberry jam from breakfast left just a tiny stain on her black T-shirt. Sideways in the mirror she looked like a squeezed balloon, her stomach bloated from the biscuits and gravy. It fluttered like a fuming sewer. Her mother called it nerves. When she asked her parents how she looked, they didn't say "bad." They just shrugged and nodded.
When she pushed open the door to Taco Viva, tiny bells sounded and Buddy Wojinski looked up. Oh my God, he thought. This is not what he'd call a win-win. He peeked out the window behind her. No interested parent watching from an idling car.
He stood in front of the store with his hands on his hips. "That," he said, as Paula plodded down the aisle toward him, "will not do." He looked her up and down, plugging his nose. "You look like a bouncer, not a cashier!" He pointed to a booth where two other trainees sat with their hands folded in their laps. "Sit down." She slid in with the grace of a humpback whale trying to squeeze under a boat. Where to begin?
Buddy sat in the booth across from Paula, next to the pretty girl who put "cheerleader" on her resume. "Take note," Buddy told them, glaring at the two girls across the table. "Tracy," he said, touching the arm of the cheerleader, "is dressed appropriately for her first day of training at Taco Viva. You will notice," he said, fanning her like one of the Price-is-Right girls, "that Tracy wore freshly-pressed pants, a crisp buttoned shirt, with a collar I might add… oh, and pleasing makeup. She has taken the time necessary to manicure her nails and style her hair. And I'll bet she read the Taco Viva Training Manual from front to back, yes?" She smiled, nodding at him.
Buddy caught himself staring at Tracy and turned away. He hoped he could keep his hands in his own pants, but he'd already witnessed her strut, swaying with an ass that begged for a bunny tail. Good mentors, he reminded himself, look only into eyes and smile. That's what his therapist kept telling him.
He reached under the booth and pulled out a neat stack of black garments. Turning with the items in his hands, he held them out to the cheerleader. "This, Tracy, is your scarf and apron. You may be part of the Taco Viva team."
Paula watched as she beamed at Buddy. God, she had perfect teeth, too!
After a few seconds of grinning silence, he focused his thoughts again and stared at the shy girl next to Paula. "You, Susan," he said, shaking his head, "must work at it, I know. You're not attractive, but pleasing enough, and I can tell that you've at least had your clothes laundered within the last week." She didn't comment, just sat there with her watery eyes fixed on the table in front of her. A prairie dog in a hole, her head popped down when he started, "You need to work on your smile. Don't be afraid of people. Shyness is just fear manifesting itself." He paused long enough for them to soak in the depth of his mentoring talents. "Lucky for you, Susan, you have one of the world's greatest motivational leaders helping you develop a personality, form good work habits. A mentor who has helped hundreds of needy souls over the last twenty years as the former Operations Manager for all one-hundred and eighty Mattress King stores across the nation." He swung open his arms, almost knocking off Tracy's head before she ducked. Cheerleaders were so flexible.
He cleared his throat and said to them all: "I developed a tape series that shipped to all the stores, and that, I'm sure, they're still using to motivate new employees. All of you will have the benefit of my guidance," he said, tapping his chest. Then to Susan: "and my experience. I will give you your scarf and apron, Susan, but - " he said, leaning across the booth, "you will have to work harder than someone like Tracy. Are you up to the Taco Viva challenge?"
Susan gave him a feeble nod.
Buddy had often transformed ugly ducks into useful waterfowl. He slid a dark pile across the table towards her. "Please, read the section in the manual titled Winning Over Customers and Making the Boss Happy. I am working on videotapes, but for now you will have to read. I think you'll find it captivating, Susan. You'll be tested on Friday," he added.
The girl cowered down in the booth. He'd work on her posture. A little dose of Buddy Wojinski would cure her of her phobias. Hadn't his therapist told him the same? He could certainly be generous enough to help a pitiful soul like her. First things first though.
Buddy turned his gaze to Miss Mess Paula.
Paula could not swallow the pool of saliva that filled her mouth or even scratch the part of her head that itched real bad. Buddy leaned back against the booth and stared. He reminded her of Daddy when he stood in front of her in the emergency room, after she'd driven the car off the road and crashed through the wall of the Lippard's house. She couldn't tell if he planned to hit her or lecture her.
Buddy crossed his arms, and shook his head back and forth while the piñata above his head spun around, leaving the butt end towards her. "You," he said and sighed, "are not acceptable, not acceptable at all."
He pushed the booth while he leaned, and shook his finger a few inches from Paula's face. "Have you no pride? Have you no dignity? Look at that shirt. It's covered with god only knows what, and your pants. Stand up," he ordered her. She looked around, but obeyed, sliding out of the booth. "Those pants, what? A size fourteen and still too small. Get some pride, girl. Brush that stringy hair. Lose some of that flab. Let me see those hands."
She didn't want to, but held them out. He stuck out his neck like an ostrich but backed away quick like he'd seen open sores. Whipping a handkerchief out of his pocket, he wiped his hands with intensity. "Grandma!" he called over her shoulder. "Grandma, please come here right now!"
His shriek reminded her of those creepy horror films she watched on Friday nights. She turned and looked just as the door swung open behind the counter, pushed hard so that it slammed into the wall. A petite but wide woman in black (who reminded her of her high school gym teacher who always called her "Tubby" and she called "Bulldog" behind her back) strode towards them. A tiny scarf perched on the woman's head, and her crisp apron hung like ice even when she walked. Paula saw black eyes glisten through slits on the monster's face as her head craned like a periscope and surveyed the room and the four of them, her scowl finally settling on her. Paula wanted to run, or at least bury her head under the covers.
"Grandma," Buddy said, "this girl will need some extra coaching from our Human Resources Department. I'm not so sure she was a good hire. We'll keep her on probation the first 30-days. Please, take her in back and walk her through the Rules of Conduct for Taco Viva. Do not gloss over the personal appearance section. It's critical that you read that out loud to her, as you can see for yourself."
He wiped his hands again with his handkerchief. "You, go with my mother," he said.
Paula looked at the cheerleader, who didn't make eye contact, and Susan could only look at her a split-second before she dropped her eyes back to her lap. Paula knew she should run, but when she looked back at Buddy Wojinski, his eyes pinned her in place--just like those B-show actors in the fright films.
He stepped towards her, and shooed her away with the rag, "Go with Grandma!"
During the first week, Paula slopped through what Buddy and Grandma called "intensive training." She wiped down the greasy tabletops and worn vinyl booths that Buddy had purchased at a flea market and re-covered in red. Her fingers cracked from the bleach. She vacuumed the red shag carpet (that in her opinion had gone seriously out of date before it was ever installed) in the morning and before she left for the day; but hard as she tried, she couldn't suck up what it hid: hard-shelled bugs, bits of taco meat, Buddy's discarded fingernails.
One time, she made the mistake of asking Grandma if she would kindly hand her a rag from under the counter. "Rag?" Grandma screeched through her stained and gritted teeth, lifting one of her penciled-on eyebrows. "This," she said, holding the rag in front of her face, making her gag from the stench, "is called a cloth." She grabbed Paula's wrist and squeezed until her fingers opened. "Never call it a rag. Rag gives the wrong impression to our customers." Paula looked around at the empty booths. Continuing to vise-grip her by the wrist, Grandma pulled her over to one of them and told her, "On your knees." Looking up at the wall where the Kmart velvet bullfighter hung, sitting peacefully in its faux gilt frame, Paula thought praying sounded like a good idea, so she genuflected on her first communion knees as ordered.
"Remove the gum from under the tables," Grandma told her. She towered over her until they heard Susan scream in the back kitchen. Then she stomped away like lighting on the way to a fire.
Paula's now-soft fingernails weren't much use. The gum had formed into impenetrable rocks and become part of the underbelly of Taco Viva.
Tracy walked by and Paula whispered to her, "Do you have a file, or chisel or something?" The cheerleader rolled her eyes, and kept walking. Tracy spent most of her day cleaning mirrors on the walls or the glass in the front window. Buddy said she was good for business, and told her to smile and wave whenever anyone passed. He also directed her to encourage ugly patrons to sit away from the windows, even if she had to lead them by the elbow.
Grandma didn't reappear. Paula heard shouting in the kitchen while Grandma taught "the imbecile" Susan how to make a vat of sauce - and Paula wanted to stay busy. She got up and stepped over to the front, pulling out a tray from under the counter. She filled it with tiny paper cups, in formation like soldiers, shoulder to shoulder, and squirted each one with bloody sauce that smelled of hot chili peppers. Like a coiled-arm, a microphone saluted her in front of the cash register, and Paula couldn't resist lowering it below the counter. Customers couldn't see her, but she peered around and spied on Tracy at the front window. "Tracy has on candy underwear," she announced over the intercom. Tracy's head snapped around and rested on her shoulder, her face a spicy shade of red.
Bursting with laughter, Paula ran to the kitchen. She pulled open the walk-in refrigerator and groped in the semi-dark for a new canister of hot sauce. She quit giggling when she heard the door slam shut behind her, and everything went dark. "Hey!" Paula yelled and beat on the door. "Let me out!" she screamed, but no one came.
It seemed like hours that she sat inside the refrigerator on the metal rack. After pounding for ten minutes, she'd given up like one of those trained fleas she'd studied in high school that stopped jumping out of the petri dish. She shivered and tried to sing songs from Church, but she got stuck on the words to Amazing Grace and recycled the same line over an over: to save a wretch like me.
She didn't know how long she waited inside before Grandma opened the door, but when she did, Buddy stood behind her with his arm around Tracy. The entire group sneered at her, and she started crying. "I'm glad you're here," Buddy said, his arm disappearing behind Tracy's back, "you can congratulate Tracy on her new promotion to Assistant Assistant Manager. Something you'll never be if you insist on playing childish pranks." Tracy glared at Paula and then suddenly jumped, moving away from Buddy. He reached out and shook Tracy's hand.
Grandma grabbed Paula's wrist and dropped the rag-cloth into her palm. "Someone just threw up in the women's restroom," she told her. Paula sighed, but scurried away, thankful that it hadn't been the men's john. The men tended to miss the small toilet Buddy installed, so it stunk of urine and the floor stayed sticky. Before getting away, Grandma added, "Here's a toothbrush. Scrub the floor of the men's and women's powder room with it."
When Paula came home that night, her mother sat at the kitchen table flipping through a brochure. "New medicine at work," she told Paula without looking up.
"Mother," Paula said, "I can't keep working at Taco Viva."
"Why not?" she said. "You have to pay your rent and buy food." Her mother kicked her leg while she leaned over and studied the brochure. Paula wanted to run options through her mind, but she couldn't think of any. "You could always work with me." Paula didn't answer, just made a snack even though she'd just eaten a full meal at Taco Viva before she walked home.
"This medicine helps heal bed sores. See," she said and held the flyer out to Paula so she could look. Photos of legs and butts with scaly scabs, oozing with pus, covered the page. "That's before," she said, and tapped the page to the other side. "Here's after."
Paula knew no torture from Buddy Wojinski or Grandma could be worse than applying that salve to those old people's scabs.
She sat down for the count with a mound of tater tots.
That night Paula dreamt she heard music, La Bamba, and through a clouded mist she saw an enormous tomato on wheels. As she approached, the music grew louder, and Buddy and Grandma popped open a window on top like the little old lady in the shoe. Paula saw Susan and hairy trolls scramble inside with mops. Then the stem lifted and a booth popped out and the trolls and Susan danced around it, around Buddy and Grandma, scrubbing their pointy boots, licking the floor. Below, she saw Tracy wiping the windows and smiling like a Matrix robot. And there she was, by herself, dancing around in small circles as she mopped up wilted lettuce and waded through grease, a toothbrush in her hand. Bells sounded and the Grandma figurine bent over at the waste with a bucket and poured bubbling red onto her head. Paula woke screaming, feeling like Carrie on prom night.
She clamored out of bed and looked in the mirror. Her eyes sunk into her skin, leaving thin sheets of black like her fingernail polish. She caked on some Revlon and dragged a brush through her hair before she walked to the kitchen for breakfast.
Paula had a day off, so she tagged along with her mother and brother to the State Fair. First thing, she looked for the trailer with hot, funnel-cakes. Next to it, she noticed a dirty old man that stood next to a monkey with a chain around its neck. The monkey wore a small, blue jacket with buttons and a pill hat. It held onto the chain, holding it away from his bird-thin body. The monkey crouched over and held out its ashen palm; his eyes begged Paula for a coin. The man stared at her as she reached into her tight jeans and tossed the monkey a couple of quarters. She wanted the monkey to rest.
But tossing the coins didn't give the monkey a break. The man grinned, showing his few brown teeth. He puffed on a harmonica and the tired monkey danced. It twirled around in circles and skipped across the dust. The chain dragged behind him. Paula cringed and backed away. Then she ran until she couldn't hear the music.
Grandma had her way of doing things: filling the cups halfway with ice, straining the black beans, steaming the tortilla for three pumps of the iron arm, positioning chips in angles around the food rather than under it. She tormented Paula the most about slicing tomatoes. "They must be turned to this angle," she barked at Paula. "Cut the tomato in half, crosswise. An exact one-third of an inch with this," she said, waving the specified, black-handled knife. "Then remove the seeds with the tip of a spoon." When Paula cut them wrong, Grandma docked her pay. "You must get this right!" she screamed at her. "It's the only way for the tomato to breathe and give flavor!"
Paula lost fifteen dollars in wages from tomato penalties.
The next week at Taco Viva involved what Buddy called "Hands-On training." For Paula that meant scrubbing the soda machine, the sauce vat, the griddles and appliances with steel wool, ammonia and scalding water. Grandma stood guard over her, checking her work, spotting the tiniest crumbs and making her do everything over until her cuticles dried out and bled. Susan's hands-on training included once again scrubbing the floor with a toothbrush, including the grimy cracks. She inched her way across on her hands and knees, and Buddy would come by and squat on her back, slap her bottom and yell, "Nice sofa!"
Tracy's hands-on, as far as Paula could tell, meant Buddy having his hands all over her as she cleaned the light fixtures above the table (he needed to show her how) and as she bent over and wiped the shelves under the counter (and he needed to squeeze by her for a soda, which meant rubbing her with his groin and catching his balance by groping her breasts.) If Tracy scowled at him or squeaked, he reminded her that he needed a "simple form, lean staff" and "loose-tight properties." He showed where it said so in the Taco Viva Manual. Then he'd slap her on the butt and grin.
He said they should all share values and insisted that at lunch each one write a paper on "What I like about working at Taco Viva and for Buddy Wojinski." The one with the best report would win dinner with him.
At lunchtime when it got busy, Paula rang up food orders and Buddy muttered phrases to her like "Stick to the Knitting" or "Do it, fix it, try it." She had no idea what he meant, but he assured the girls that they followed in the footsteps of mental giants.
"Principles based on best sellers," he sniffed. "I'm working on my own."
One afternoon, the manager from the shoe store came in for a meal. He'd been friendly the day Paula dropped in looking for a job, but abrupt as he bustled around the store, picking up shoes and holding up a finger to an old lady that waited on a soft bench. "I'll be back with your choices in just one minute, Mrs. Hill." Then he turned to Paula and told her, "I don't have time today. Sorry." Paula took that as a no.
Today he wore clean khakis and a lavender, buttoned-down shirt. His warm smile and the springy way he walked in his soft shoes reminded Paula of Mr. Rogers, a stranger that she wished hadn't died. "Hi, my name's Jim," he said to her before he ordered. His curly black hair dangled in front of his eyes, and he brushed it away before he held out his hand. "I'm the manager at Two-Tone Shoes. Sorry I didn't have a chance to talk to you the other day. We get so busy sometimes." Paula stared at his hand and then shook it. "Look's like you found a job… and are doing well." She blushed and nodded. "Too bad, I could use some help. Hey," he said and looked around, "I'd hate to steal you from old Buddy, but you let me know if you're interested in selling shoes. It's fun and I bet you'd be great!" Then he chuckled as he watched Buddy marching up and down the aisles, stopping to chat with teenage girls. "Old Buddy's quite a nut."
Paula gave him a large soda even though he only ordered a medium.
"Team," Buddy called to the recruits before they left that night, "sit down." They came to him like children scrambling to the pied piper - and he loved being in the front!
He ushered them into the booth, a soft hand on Tracy's backside before she took her usual place next to him. Susan never talked much and he'd grown accustomed to telling her what to do and think. Paula slid into the booth, pulling her scarf off of her greasy head. Splatters of sauce and dried cheese stained her T-shirt. He decided to ignore her for now.
"Good news," he told them. "I've designed a new marketing strategy." They appeared to be interested, all eyes on him. He waved the neon-green fliers at them. "Coupons to attract new customers. After all, we need to satisfy his needs and anticipate his wants. What do I say? Stay close - "
"To the customers!" Tracy boomed.
He winked at her.
"That's right, Tracy. Stay close to the customers, girls. And what better way than to offer a free taco every Tuesday--with the purchase of a medium drink of course. That's called bundling," he told them. Only Tracy appeared to understand the genius. "Give them something free, but make them buy something. That way, they'll buy even more." From the blank looks on the other girls' faces, he could tell the term shot over their heads.
"Tracy, you hand out Taco Tuesday fliers at the high school," he told her, giving her a thin stack. "Only to the popular kids," he stressed with his finger. "Susan, you drop them off to the other stores in the strip mall. Tell them they're for their customers, not them." He gave her a few sheets. "Paula," he said, "you cover the neighborhoods. Stuff one in every mailbox, or tape one to the front door. I want a two, maybe three-mile radius covered." He clapped his hands and stood up. "Okay, girls, get started."
"Will we be compensated for this?" Tracy asked.
"Team work means we do things for each other," Buddy answered with his hands on his hips. "Do I ask you to pay me for everything?"
"You're getting dinner tonight with your Buddy, aren't you?"
Paula waited for her response, hoping that the cheerleader would put him in his place. "My boyfriend doesn't want me to go to dinner with you," she squeaked.
Buddy leaned over and grasped her hands in his. "You shouldn't let a boy control you, Tracy. Haven't I been telling you that?"
She dropped her head and fiddled with a school ring that hung by a chain from her neck.
"So, off you go!" he said and darted through the swinging door.
Paula headed home down the busy street, planning to drop off fliers along the way. She stuffed one into the mailbox of the first house. A woman jogging by told her, "You can't do that. It's illegal to nose around in someone's mailbox."
Paula apologized and stuffed them into her pocket. She didn't have any tape for front doors, and she didn't feel like walking that much.
When she got home, her mother sat at the kitchen table, her drawn face shadowed by wisps of fine hair. She looked like a baby bird waiting in the nest. Paula wondered why she hadn't inherited her mother's thin frame instead of big Aunt Belinda's. "You look tired," her mother said.
Paula nodded and started to make a snack, but stopped and got a glass of water instead. "The guy from the shoe store thought I'd be great at selling shoes." She pulled out a chair from the table and sat down across from her mother. "What do you think?"
Her mother gazed into space while she stirred her coffee mug. "Great." She set down the spoon and blew into her mug. "I finished my training so I can drive the activity bus at Sisters of Mercy," she said. "Now I can take some of the folks on trips. Want to make a little extra cash?" Paula shrugged and sipped her water. "I need help pushing the wheelchairs--and the people are messy so you'd have to wipe them off a lot, help them in the restroom. Maybe on your days off."
"No thanks," Paula said. "Can I look at your magazine with the ads? I want to look at shoes."
"You can't afford new shoes," her mother told her.
The next day, Buddy met Paula at the door. "Did you deliver all the marketing fliers?"
She nodded yes, looking him straight in the eye. Those acting classes really had paid off.
"Good," he said and handed her a thicker stack. "Who's that boy?" he asked her and pointed out the window into the parking lot. A stocky guy in a leather school jacket stomped towards the door. All chest and shoulders, he looked familiar, but Paula couldn't place him.
"Oh, I think he's some hotshot from the wrestling team at high school."
Tracy screamed behind her. "Oh, God! Billy!" she shouted and shoved Buddy backwards. "You'd better run!"
After that, Taco Viva turned into a scene from an old spaghetti western. Paula heard nasal whistling in her head, and heavy breathing. Billy stood in the doorway, his frame surrounded by white light reflected from the parking lot, his legs locked in solid muscle. He balled his fists by his side and sneered while Buddy cowered behind Tracy, poking his head out just enough to shout at him, "Calm down, boy!" When Billy didn't respond and tipped towards him stiff-legged, Buddy yelled, "Please! I can explain!" and scampered to the kitchen with Billy on his tail.
Paula ran after them, while Grandma shouted, "Get him close to the refrigerator and I'll lock him in!" Buddy grabbed a mesh spoon and swung it around his head while Tracy screamed and covered her eyes. Billy punched at a pot of sauce that splattered against the wall and clanged to the floor. Susan darted behind the counter. "Grab his arms, pisser!" Grandma yelled.
With that, Paula turned and ran the other way, out the door. She headed straight for the shoe store. A few doors away, she doubled over and caught her breath.
In a few seconds, she felt better, and brushed her hair with her fingers. What would she say? I've thought about your offer and would like to accept? I do think I'd be great selling shoes. How about that help you needed? Or just, save me please!
She peeked in the window. Jim, the store manager, squatted in front of a little girl and squeezed her foot into a pair of black, shiny shoes. The girl's mother sat by her cooing, "Ooh." Jim pointed to a floor mirror and the girl pranced over. She twirled around, eyeing herself while Jim clapped.
Paula pinched her cheeks like she'd seen soap queens do, and stepped inside. She took a deep breath and waited.
"Hi," he said her way. "Good to see you. Paula is it?"
She nodded. "I thought I might talk to you about selling shoes."
He walked over to her and held her shoulders. "I'd hate to steal you from Buddy, but I watched you at the cash register. You're good with numbers, and I bet you're great with people."
"Yes, I am," she said.
"Listen, I'm busy right now, but why don't you come by after work, before the after dinner crowd, and we can talk."
Paula thanked him and shook his hand. Outside, she skipped towards Taco Viva. In the distance, she heard screaming and spotted Billy chasing Buddy across the parking lot. Billy may be faster, but Buddy didn't stop for moving cars.
A few minutes later when Paula got a cloth to clean tables, Buddy crashed through the service door in the back of Taco Viva. He scrambled around, collecting knives and his wallet. "You take over, Grandma," he shouted before he and Tracy whisked away to her pea-green Camaro.
By the time Billy came through the front door just a few minutes after, heaving and dripping sweat, Taco Viva swarmed with customers. "Where's that old-man pervert!" he screamed at Paula.
She explained that he and Tracy had left, but she could write down Buddy's home address on a Taco Viva order sheet if he wanted it. Almost before she could finish, he grabbed it and tore out. Even over the crowd, she heard his tires screeching in the parking lot.
Susan cleaned up the mess left from the brawl in between orders, and Paula bussed tables with the vigor of a true workhorse. Grandma ordered her, "Unclog the toilet, and then help Susan on the back line. Wash your hands!"
While Grandma wasn't looking, Paula snuck jalapeno juice into her soda. She had learned that it floated, and thought it would add flavor to Grandma's Dr. Pepper. Susan saw her do it, but didn't say a word. When Grandma took a sip, her eyes lit up as if a wildfire swept through her mouth. She stuck her head under the soda machine, sucking on the spout while customers groaned. Then she rubbed her tongue with a rag, moaning.
"Which one of you tramps did that!" she growled at them. Perspiration pooled on her forehead and her beady eyes moved from one girl to the other.
Neither girl admitted to spiking her soda.
After the crowd thinned, Grandma made them both clean out the johns with ammonia and toothbrushes. Susan giggled the entire time.
Before Paula left that evening, Grandma handed her another thick stack of fliers. "Deliver every single one! Tomorrow, expect to hand clean the carpet!" Paula whistled while she stuffed the fliers into her pocket.
On her way to Taco Viva the next day, Paula wondered what had been her best answer in the 30-minute interview with Jim.
"Paula, what are the most important aspects of selling?"
"Staying close to the customer, anticipating her wants, satisfying her needs."
"Great! What are your two greatest strengths?"
"I'm a hard worker and a quick learner."
"Excellent! Where do you want to be in five years, Paula?"
She even surprised herself with her answer to that one: "I'd like to go to college."
He nodded and held out his hand. "When can you start?"
She barely made it to work before Buddy, who showed up with a crusty and swollen eye. He moaned all morning, lying down in the front booth with a bag of frozen chopped onions over his face. Tracy crept around him like a guilty dog that had peed on the oriental rug. Neither one mentioned the incident and Susan stayed busy scrubbing. Grandma slammed pans around in the kitchen, soap bubbles up to her elbows while she muttered and clucked her tongue. Paula waited for the opportune time to tell Buddy that she would be giving her two- weeks notice (as Jim had coached her to do).
"Susan," Buddy moaned, "get me three nachos without peppers, a burrito with extra cheese, a chili hotdog, and a large diet Coke."
"Order up," Susan said and pleaded Paula with her eyes to take it to him. Paula filled his cup halfway with ice, added soda, and placed the food on two trays.
"Buddy," she told him, sliding in across from him in her usual spot, "I need to tell you something."
"Not right now, Paula," he moaned. "I don't have the strength to train you today. Maybe a little bite and I'll feel better." He sat up, grabbed the food and handed the trays back to her. "But since we're slow today," he said, taking a bite of his nacho and speaking with his mouth full, "why don't you run around the neighborhood to the north and drop off fliers. There's a big stack for you in my office. I'll even let you go during work time," he said, drowning his burrito in hot sauce.
Paula swallowed. She'd use the line Jim suggested: "Buddy, I wanted to thank you for the opportunity, but - "
"Don't thank me," he said, spitting bits of food while he talked. "At least not right now. It's the least I could do for a thing like you. Who else would hire you? And if you work real hard," he said, leaning over towards her with bits of taco meat hanging from his lip, "I may be able to convince Grandma not to extend your 30-day probation. I want to take you off, but Grandma - " He winked at her and cheered her with the soda cup.
"I quit!" she bellowed.
His eyes grew bigger than tostadas. His face turned from hot peppers to black beans and a horrible gurgling rumbled from him. The burrito had lodged in his throat and he flopped to the ground like a worn mattress. Paula had seen the Heimlich maneuver on television, but she'd never paid attention. She jumped onto his back and stomped. As he wheezed and flapped his arms, she straddled him with the back of his head between her knees. She wrapped her fingers around his throat and bent him backwards.
Susan screamed and Grandma rushed in. She tossed Paula off Buddy and lifted him by his armpits and squeezed around his chest. A large piece of chewed flour hurled past Paula's head and stuck to the vinyl booth. Buddy wheezed and pointed at Paula. "Tried to kill me, so ungrateful," he said between breaths. "After all I've done for you, the time I've invested." He pointed to the door and yelled, "You're fired!"
Paula started at Two-Tone shoes the following Monday. She'd spent a few days shopping, and bought two pairs of khakis and some crisp, button-down shirts at TJMaxx. Her mother told her she looked great and even drove her to get a hair cut. Her father whistled at her. Said she could pass for that Kathy Bates woman.
Her first day, Jim showed Paula around. She padded behind him and learned. She knew how to run the cash register, the same one as Taco Viva. The little, old ladies loved Paula because she never complained when they tried on dozens of pairs of shoes, and she listened to their stories. And she didn't gag at their pointy feet before stuffing them into pointy boots. She even discovered that she had a keen eye for matching purses and belts.
Jim let her buy shoes on layaway, and Paula wore them the next day, tickled in heels. Around lunchtime, she peeked out the window. On schedule, the small white bus with Sisters of Mercy painted on the side parked sideways in the spot in front of Taco Viva. Her mother jumped out of the driver's seat and ran around to the side. She opened the door and jiggled the arm on the electronic lift. A cushioned man in a wheelchair lowered like a Lazy Boy recliner. She wheeled him to the sidewalk and went back for another. Paula waited on a customer, but peered outside as she ran into the back for more shoes. Ten more times her mother lowered the lift until she'd lined up people on both sides of the door to Taco Viva like bent tulips.
Finished with her customer, Paula told Jim that she wanted to take her lunch, if he didn't mind. He didn't. She stepped outside just as her mother handed each one a neon-green flier. Paula giggled and teetered over in her kidskin pumps. "Let me help, Mother." Paula propped the door open to Taco Viva with the kickstand as Tracy buffed the front window. One look at Paula and she slipped backwards over the booth.
"Give me a T," Paula cheered. "What's that spell? Taco Tuesday!" Paula jerked her head and signaled to the other wheelchairs behind her. "They have so many coupons that they can come to Taco Tuesday for months!" she chirped as she wheeled a drooling man past Tracy.
Buddy stood behind the counter, but his smile faded to a frown when Paula paraded past him and made a U-turn. She pushed the curmudgeon back down the aisle, parking him in front of the window. For the next forty-five minutes, Paula and her mother wheeled each person to the counter and ordered: "A medium soda and a free taco." Then handed Buddy a flier.
"Grandma!" Paula shouted from the window booth with a mountain of free tacos. "We need rags over here! Lots and lots of RAGS!"
Janice Lierz is a former Fortune 500 executive, and president of several consumer products subsidiaries. She has just completed her first novel: The Persnickety Parlour.