How to Win Friends -Fiction 2010
By Emily Beck Cogburn
Illustration by James O’Brien
Summer 2010 Issue
I fed buns and hamburger patties into the massive broiler. I wouldn’t need many since the lunch rush was almost over. Moving over to the deep fryers, I poured frozen fries into a basket and submerged it in the bubbling grease.
The restaurant manager, a short, balding man who called himself “Mr. Ted,” stood by the fryers “keeping the troops in line.”
“It’s easy to get what you want out of life, Mr. Jerry,” the manager said as I filled another fry basket with frozen chicken patties.
Since he was watching I used tongs—blue plastic tongs for frozen food.
He put a stubby finger to his chin. “Every morning when you wake up, think about how you can get closer to your goal. Then do it.”
I shuffled to the other end of the broiler and sorted the buns and patties. Little Humdinger Jrs., big Humdingers, and a couple of oblong buns for chicken sandwiches. Pushing the bill of my greasy Royal Burger cap back further on my crew cut, I read the green-on-black code filling the smudged computer screen. “2 CHK FLT 2 MFF/ 2 HAM 1 CHZ 2 MFF/ 1 FISH 1LFF 1HDR 1 LFF/ 2HJR 1 SFF.”
Great, I had no cooked fish. I reached into the freezer under the ounter and came up with four breaded filets. Mr. Ted was looking at the ceiling for inspiration, so he didn’t see me toss the pressed-together fish crap into the basket with my bare hands.
“When I was a teenager working at RB, I thought every day about how I could become a manager.” Mr. Ted pulled the basket of fries from the grease and waved the saltshaker over them. “I arrived early for every shift and volunteered to work when someone was sick. I learned every job in the store from drive-thru to cleaning the shake machine. In five years I was shift leader, seven years later assistant manager, and in 10 more years, I made store manager.”
Tipping the basket of cooked chicken into the warmer, I grabbed two oblong buns and slathered them with mayonnaise. I sprinkled on some shredded lettuce, added the hot patties, and cut the sandwiches. I slid the finished creations down the chicken chute to one of the greasy-haired teenagers working front counter. He gave an exaggerated yawn.
“I learned this from my dad. When I was 10 I wanted a bike and he told me I’d have to save for it. Every time I wanted candy or to go to the movies I thought about the bike and put money in a coffee can. In three years I had my very own Schwinn.” Mr. Ted looked past me, out the front window at the cars speeding by. “The old man taught me the value of hard work.”
Tupelo came in after the lunch rush. He wagged his eyebrows at me before ducking into the bathroom. He sometimes joked about his habit of changing clothes before his shift. “I go in as mild-mannered Tupelo Jones and come out as Superburgerman! Able to make tasteless sandwiches in the blink of an eye! Strong enough to tackle the toughest munchies!” Part of what made it funny was his lack of anything close to a superhero physique. Despite eating constantly, Tupelo was a gangly, red-headed scarecrow.
Business was slow; it was that time between lunch and dinner I called the infinite void because the dull afternoon hours made time seem to stop. When Tupelo was working, though, we amused ourselves by making fun of customers and talking about school or his latest date.
Tupelo kneeled to count the pies in the cooler. He acted serious while Mr. Ted was still in the store—checking inventory, making sure we had enough bags of fries up front for the dinner rush, sending a teenager to straighten the dining room.
Satisfied that everything was under control, Mr. Ted said, “Guys, I’d like you both to come to dinner at my house Friday night to talk about getting you started on the RB manager program. You’re almost done with college so it’s time you thought about the future.”
“Sure, Mr. Ted,” Tupelo said, waiting until the manager turned around before pretending to throw a hamburger at his head.
Hefting two garbage sacks over his shoulder, Mr. Ted disappeared out the back door. I immediately relaxed. The dinner rush was less busy than lunch. Tupelo, two lackadaisical teenage boys with skater haircuts, and I ran the store easily. On drive-thru, Tupelo could take orders, banter with customers, hand out bags, and make change without breaking a sweat while I made food and the teenagers handled counter business. The boys both left at 7:30, and after that I could have watched a sitcom between customers if the TV in the back only had an antenna. Instead, I caught up on dishes. Tupelo restocked cups, napkins, and straws and finished taking inventory.
At eleven, the dining room closed; drive-thru stayed open until midnight. Since there wasn’t any business, we cleaned and got ready to shut down for the night.
“My dad thinks I should go to grad school,” Tupelo said as he tossed chairs onto tabletops. His parents were both high school teachers and Tupelo said he felt stifled by their expectations. For college, he’d purposely avoided the closer Duluth branch of the University of Minnesota for the Minneapolis–St. Paul campus.
“But if I went to manager school, I could be making thirty grand in no time. Getting a Ph.D. takes at least five years! Besides, I’d have to move away and Kristi won’t leave Minnesota.” He put up the last chair and jumped onto the front counter, long legs dangling.
I thought Tupelo was only considering or pretending to consider becoming an RB manager to antagonize his parents. As for his girlfriend, Kristi was cute, but dumb. She was going to college for the Mrs. degree and I doubted Tupelo would really give it to her. Just another rebellion.
“You don’t really want to be like Mr. Ted, do you?” I asked, pushing the gray rope mop around a table.
“No, I don’t want to spend the rest of my life covered in fry grease. It’s a sure thing, though. Easy money.”
I shrugged. I didn’t hate fast food as much as I’d expected. As long as I had the night shift and worked with Tupelo, it wasn’t bad. But I wouldn’t want to be doing it at 50.
“You see, Mr. Jerry,” Tupelo said, hopping down from the counter and pacing across the floor, “you have to make goals in life. Every morning make a goal for that day. Today I’m gonna wash my socks and learn to clean the deep fryer. Don’t ever put socks in the deep fryer. I cleaned the fryer for five years, then I learned to clean the shake machine. Two years as shake machine manager and I moved up to front counter manager. Goals.
“RB is not just about money. We have an important job. What does everyone in the world need? Food. Greasy shit at a fair price. That’s all the customer wants. Lots of lard for his money. And a friendly smile. Never underestimate the power of the smile. A smile can make the difference between a customer thinking you’re grumpy or a freak for enjoying your crappy job.
"We want a happy customer because a happy customer is a satisfied customer and a satisfied customer comes back for more greasy shit.” Tupelo pointed at the other fast food restaurants on the strip. “Look out that window. What do you see?
"McDonald’s and KFC. They sell greasy shit too. Why should the customer buy our greasy shit? Service. It’s all about service. And smiles. And grease.” He climbed back onto the counter, took a pack of Camels from his pocket, and lit one.
“See, you can’t take this crap seriously. You’d hate being the big manager,” I said.
“I probably would.” He stretched out on his side like a skinny pinup girl and blew a smoke ring toward the ceiling. “Okay, I’ll do the grad school thing if you will.”
“I’m going to see Dr. Edwards tomorrow.”
“I guess you’ve already decided then.”
“Guess I have.” I wheeled the mop bucket behind the counter and emptied the gray water into a drain.
I didn't have to look
at the house number to find Mr. Ted’s place. Tupelo’s beat-up Honda with its “Visualize whirled peas” bumper sticker was parked in the driveway. The beige ranch-style was nearly identical to the other ones on the block. A one-story with a sloping roof, the house featured a brick façade and fake shutters. Though modest, Mr. Ted’s residence had been well maintained, exactly as I would have expected from him.
I walked up to the spotlessly clean white door and rang the bell. A large, awkward man with most of his weight in his hips and thighs appeared, gaped at me, then called over his shoulder, “Ted, there’s a man at the door. A man, Ted!”
“Yes, Jimmy, let him in please,” Mr. Ted’s voice said from inside the house.
Jimmy grinned and stepped out of the way. The house was warm and steamy, a rain forest that smelled like chicken stew. I stepped into a living room decorated with thick brown carpet and worn beige furniture. Jimmy sat down on the couch, his jaw slack as he stared at the TV. Whatever he was watching had a relentless laugh track.
I went into the kitchen where Mr. Ted tossed chunks of chicken suspiciously like the ones we used for salads at RB into a pot of soup.
“Looks great,” I said.
“Old family recipe,” Mr. Ted answered. I couldn’t tell if he was joking.
The kitchen was 20-year-outdated country chic. Worn linoleum imitated stone tiles. All the appliances were harvest gold, a color I’d thought had gone the way of avocado green. Near the wall-mounted telephone hung a rack of tiny spoons from different countries. I hoped it had belonged to Mr. Ted’s deceased mother. The idea of the manager collecting spoons was just too weird. Maybe he didn’t notice the rack anymore since the vegetable-printed wallpaper had to be at least 30 years old. Decorating clearly wasn’t his forte.
From the kitchen table, Tupelo gave me a look combining incredulity with nervousness. I knew what he was thinking. Our manager had mentioned his brother before and we had gathered he was mentally handicapped, but we hadn’t known Mr. Ted took care of him. We’d both assumed he lived in a group home.
“So I was just telling Tupelo here about the great benefits you can get as a full-time RB manager,” Mr. Ted said, taking out a wooden spoon to stir the soup.
As I calculated how to sound polite but not too interested, Jimmy yelled from the living room, above the noise of the TV, “Ted, Ted, we need some shoes. At Save-Mart. I want shoes, Ted.”
“No, Jimmy, you don’t need any shoes,” Mr. Ted called back. He lowered his voice. “Commercials. He always thinks we need whatever the ads say. Our mother died a few years back. Left me with this house. And him. Daddy passed when we were kids, so I’ve taken care of him since I was 12, while Mom worked. Now he goes to adult day care when I’m at RB.” He sprinkled salt into his concoction.
“Since he’s my dependent, he can be on my health insurance. Insurance is getting more expensive, as I’m sure you boys know, but RB takes care of its employees. They haven’t raised the portion we pay even though it’s costing them more and more.”
Jimmy called out again, “Ted, Ted, we need some diapers. Don’t we need Pampers, Ted?”
“No, Jimmy, we don’t need diapers.” Mr. Ted turned toward us. He was wearing a faded pink apron with ruffles on the arms.
“I’ve also got life insurance. Life insurance is important. You boys are so young, you might not think so, but if you have a wife or kids, someone depending on you, you’d better have it. I don’t want Jimmy out on the street if I die. He works 10 hours a week at the recycling plant, but that’s more to make him feel useful. The company gets some kind of tax write-off. He doesn’t know that what he makes hardly buys lunch for the day.”
Jimmy lumbered into the kitchen, his heavy footsteps rattling the dishes in the cabinets. “Ted, we need some High Life. Can’t we get some High Life, Ted?”
“No, we don’t need beer, Jimmy. Please set the silverware out. Four people.”
I could have used a beer. Or three. But somehow I knew that the harvest gold refrigerator held only pop.
“Four.” Jimmy pointed at each of us, counting. “One. Two. Three. Four. Four, Ted.” He opened a drawer with so much force that I thought he would completely yank it out.
“Good counting, Jimmy,” Mr. Ted said.
“Yeah, that was great,” I said, feeling like an idiot.
“Two weeks vacation to start. After you’ve worked with the company seven years you get another week. At 15 years another and at 25 another. That’s the max: five,” Mr. Ted continued.
“Four!” Jimmy said, clutching silverware in each hand.
“OK. Set the table now,” Mr. Ted said.
“I’m almost at five weeks. Jimmy likes to go to Disneyland.” Mr. Ted lowered his voice on the last word. He watched Jimmy retreat into the dining room, singing and rattling the spoons.
“I bet you’ve got dental and the whole works, too,” Tupelo said, sounding completely serious.
“Just got my fillings replaced this year,” Mr. Ted said. I hoped he wouldn’t open his mouth and show us. “Would’ve cost me a mint without RB.”
Jimmy appeared in the doorway. “Ted, I want to eat. Ted, we need to eat.”
“Say please, Jimmy.” Mr. Ted put on a mitt that matched his apron, reached into the oven and pulled out a cookie sheet of RB hamburger bun halves brushed with margarine. He transferred them to a plate and handed it to Jimmy. “Put this on the table while I serve the soup.”
Mr. Ted gave each of us a bowl of soup on a plate and took off his apron. Thank God. When he was growing up, his mother must have worn the pink apron as she served him on these dishes in this same house with this same brother. The whole thing was creepy and sad.
Tupelo and I walked into the dining room together, trying to act relaxed. Framed next to the china cabinet was the cross-stitched homily: “Home is where the heart is.” A worn, lacy tablecloth covered the table. The centerpiece was a dusty arrangement of dried flowers, probably also dating from before Mother’s death.
When Mr. Ted and Jimmy were seated, Tupelo picked up his spoon. I shot him a look and he quickly set it down.
“Let’s bow our heads and thank our Creator for this bounty,” Mr. Ted said. “Jimmy?”
“God is great, God is good, so we thank him for our food, amen,” Jimmy recited and took a huge bite from his bun half.
After we’d eaten the bland soup for a while, Mr. Ted broke the silence. “You know, I really don’t want to be in corporate. I like being around the day-to-day operations of the store. Making sure our guests receive quality service for a reasonable price. That’s my mission. Of course, we couldn’t do it without corporate, but I’m a hands-on kind of guy.”
Tupelo and I exchanged glances. We both knew Mr. Ted wasn’t climbing any corporate ladders, whether he wanted to or not.
Jimmy ate quickly, slurping. “Ted. Mom made pea soup. Green pea soup.”
“Yes, Jimmy,” Mr. Ted said. “But she’s gone now.”
“Gone, yes, dead.”
“So what do we have to do to become full-time managers?” Tupelo asked, a note of desperation in his voice.
“Well, there’s a nine-week training session, paid of course. You have to take written tests and learn some laws and regulations. Then they put you right in there. See if you can handle it. If you can, you’re in. Of course, you’ll always have more experienced managers on hand to guide you along.”
“And how much would we start at?”
“Twenty-five. But you’re eligible for a raise after six months and there’s always a chance for one at your yearly performance evaluation. And of course, you’ll want to work your way up. You get a raise when you’re promoted.”
“Dessert, Ted,” Jimmy said. “We need some dessert.”
While we ate bowls of melting vanilla ice cream, Mr. Ted produced two hardcover copies of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People
. I recognized the book from the paperback version Tupelo’s girlfriend carried around. Whenever she quoted from it, I wondered how he got through their dates with a straight face.
Mr. Ted handed us each a book as if they were confirmation Bibles. “When I was about your age, my manager at RB gave me Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People
and it set my course for life. I wouldn’t have made it nearly as far as I have without that book. This one here’s a little more up-to-date. Here, read it; study it. I read a paragraph every night before bed and every morning before dropping Jimmy off. You boys can do anything you want if you put your mind to it. You could even make it up to corporate . . . your whole life is ahead of you.”
his 7 Habits
into the Honda. Hitting the passenger seat, it bounced and landed on a dog-eared copy of The Metaphysics of Morals. He turned to face me, leaning on the open door of the car. “How’re we going to tell him we won’t be his protégés? I mean, I feel kind of bad about it now.”
I couldn’t think of an answer. All I knew was that I didn’t want to work at RB anymore.
About the Author
Emily Beck Cogburn (B.A. ’96) grew up in North St. Paul and earned a bachelor’s degree in philosophy at the University of Minnesota. She went on to earn a master’s in philosophy at Ohio State University and later a master’s in library and information science from Louisiana State University.
Cogburn’s fiction has appeared in Phantasmagoria, Tom’s Voice Magazine, Gris Gris Rouge
, and Jubilee Anthology
. In 2008, she was one of the winners of the Country Roads Magazine
“The inspiration for ‘How to Win Friends’ came from my own fast-food experience and my husband’s stories about his retail adventures,” she says. “The piece began as part of a novel, but eventually I decided that it didn’t fit there and would work better as a short story. It’s been rewritten more times than I can count.”
Currently Cogburn is shopping a young adult novel titled Escape from High School
and is working on a novel called The Breaking of Things
, about the decline and fall of an alcoholic philosophy professor in Katrina-era New Orleans.
Cogburn lives in Baton Rouge with her husband and their two children. When she’s not writing, according to her Web site (www.emilycogburn.com
), she enjoys playing bass guitar in a local swamp punk band and cooking with lots of butter.
Author Charles Baxter
, professor of creative writing at the University of Minnesota, judged the finalists in Minnesota magazine’s 11th annual fiction contest. He had this to say about winning entry “How to Win Friends,” by Emily Beck Cogburn:
“This story does what good fiction should do, which is to bring us the news about a part of life we may not have known or thought about. The milieu that ‘How to Win Friends’ dramatizes is the almost-invisible one of minimum-wage work in a fast-food restaurant. What happens to the people who work in such places? Here, for an answer, is one instance.
“In the story’s background are the ambitions of generations of readers of Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People, a book that is still very much alive for one of the characters in this story. The dialogue of this story is beautifully attuned to the speech of real people, and its small cast of characters comes completely to life on the page. Indeed, the manager of the restaurant, who seems at first to be a one-dimensional boss, turns out to be a complex human being with real and surprising problems of his own.
“This is a remarkable story, and the breath of life (with a slight odor of hamburger grease) flows straight through it.”
Cogburn’s winning story won a cash prize of $2,000. Thanks to all who entered this year’s contest—we received 84 entries. For information on next year’s contest, go to www.MinnesotaAlumni.org/fiction