“Andrew began to sob pathetically in the corner. And Jenna put the Taco Boy bag back into the fridge. “
With each passing comment she exploded into a three second sound byte of her own forced laughter. What she was talking about Jenna wasn’t specifically certain, but she could guess. It was for sure something about her husband, her health problems, or the trouble she had putting together the new bed they had bought for themselves. It had to be one of those things because she never truly deviated from those three topics. And of course, she couldn’t help but exude a witch-like cackle after each thought.
Her name was Bea and she worked in HR. Bea got no laughter out of Jenna, nor the other two void souls that sat in the back seat of Jenna’s fifteen-year-old Ford Escape. Instead her guffaws forced Jenna to search the roadside scenery for anything else to occupy her attention.
“We need to turn back,” said Al from the backseat. Al vaguely worked in accounting. He was also staring out the window and his comment convinced Jenna to try to find what he was looking at. But there was nothing.
“And why is that?” Jenna asked.
“You forget your morning coffee? I know I sure did,” Bea said before laughing. “Again!” she added. “My husband was supposed to put the pot on this morning but I had already done it so when he went to make coffee there was already coffee made and then he made coffee anyways and then we had coffee all over the kitchen floor so we just said ‘to hell with it’ and decided to leave the coffee cleanup for later since my back has been hurting lately but even so we didn’t even get a chance to drink any of the coffee despite the fact that we had made so much of it!”
Nobody said anything.
Because it was all over the floor,” Bea continued with a laugh.
“Why do we need to turn around?” Jenna asked again.
Al released a deep breath that he must have been holding in for a decade. “No reason in particular. I just think we should turn back.”
They continued onwards in relative silence bar the broken bed that Bea had to deal with. On either side of the car were retail outlet stores of varied substance. They were ripe for the shopping during the select times when Jenna didn’t have to be at work.
There was a karaoke bar that she always imagined herself having a good time in—but that she never went into called “Who Cares? Okee.” Further down the road was an escape room that she had heard from many people who hadn’t actually been to that exact location but had been to a different location was a fun experience for a party of 2-4. She had also wanted to try that but had a hard time finding 1-3 people to go with her—as well as having a hard time finding herself to go with her.
Bea released a laugh so forced that the radio which Jenna didn’t even realize was on jumped channels.
Then something caught her eye through the lens of her windshield. It was a red and orange hue of Americanized Mexican Marketing. The sign for the Taco Boy fast food joint had a new advert that Jenna felt shouldn’t have been. “Fish Taco,” it said on the first line, “With God” it said on the second.
“Does that say ‘fish taco with God?’” Jenna said.
The car was stopped at a red light so Bea got a chance to look it over. “I think it is supposed to say ‘fish taco with cod.’”
“Cod would make more sense,” Al said. “They probably ran out of “C”’s to use for the sign. I saw that once at my son’s high school. It said, “Come to our Home oming game this weekend! Support the arson ity High S hool ougars!”
The fourth member of the car pool also said something—but their identity wasn’t important nor was what they had to say”
“I’ve never eaten at Taco Boy” Jenna admitted.
Jenna spent the first two hours of her workday finishing up the last 5 hours of work that she decided not to do the previous day. And it only took her about thirty minutes before she was finished with it all.
She pulled up Wikipedia and began typing in nouns until she found an article that sounded interesting. It was quite dull however. She read the whole thing and began thinking about lunch. The window by her desk was boarded up so she couldn’t actually see what kind of weather was outside today, but she figured it was probably good enough to walk somewhere and buy something.
There was a really good Japanese place a couple blocks down that she had been meaning to try. Jenna then remembered that she had brought a lunch today and it would be a waste to leave it uneaten. Besides she wanted to save the money for some sort of excuse, and she was willing to bet it was raining outside today anyways.
A reminder popped up on her computer screen. There was a meeting in the conference room today at 10:00 AM. It was 10:05 and Jenna wondered why the reminder wouldn’t have told her sooner. She spent 10 minutes trying to fix the reminder software to perform correctly before making her way to the conference room. Ultimately, she found no discernable way to make the program remind her at a reasonable time.
Jenna was the third person to arrive and the first person to arrive whose brain didn’t automatically switch off when she entered the room. The other two, Miles and Julian from sales, stood just inside the room with their coffee cups in hand staring blankly at the empty chairs around the conference table. Jenna walked past them and when she took a seat a shiver flew up their spines and they accepted the notion of sitting down next to her.
By 10:30 everybody had more or less made their way to the conference room and their manager Martin arrived to set up his presentation. “God damnit,” he said fidgeting with his laptop. “God fucking damnit.” Nobody responded, in fact most everybody agreed. Whatever Martin was doing it wasn’t working and he restarted the laptop hoping that a simple reboot would be enough. It wasn’t. And Martin began to collect sweat on his forehead.
“Christ almighty!” he shouted. He sunk his face into his hands and began to sob quietly as he rested his elbows against the conference room table. “God damnit,” he said between his cries. Everybody sat in silence neither stunned nor receptive to Martin’s public doom.
Martin wiped his eyes and tried once more to get his presentation to work. In a sudden shift of composure, he slammed the laptop closed with an escalating fury and threw it out the window. Unfortunately, the window to the conference room had also been boarded up and the laptop just smashed into pieces against the plywood. “I’ll be right back,” Martin said calmly.
After a few minutes Martin returned with a different laptop. “I had the wrong one,” he said.
On the large TV screen that was mounted on the wall a slide appeared that read “Employee Output Improvement Program.”
“This is a new name for the same initiative we have been pushing on you guys for years,” Martin began. “Now I want you to raise your hand and then I am going to call on you.”
Everybody raised their hand. “Julian,” Martin said.
“Would you be so kind as to start us off?”
“Telling us how many dreams you have had in your life, like I asked.”
“Are you talking about dreams like at night? With uh, weird things happening? My mother turning into a cactus and whatnot?”
“No,” Martin said. Martin turned off the TV screen as apparently, he was done with the visual portion of his presentation. “I mean like the things that you want to do in your life.”
“Oh, easy, I’ve had 120 of those.”
“Pretty average, I would say,” said Martin. “Anyone have more than 120 dreams in their lifetime?”
About ten people raised their hand. Martin chose one at random, “Yes, Tony, how many dreams have you had?”
“348,” Tony said proudly.
The room was filled with a resounding “Woooow.”
“Impressive,” Martin said. “Now have many of those have you given up on for this job?”
“As of last December, I believe I have given up on 330 of those, give or take. Probably take.”
Martin took out his smartphone and began punching numbers into his calculator app. “That is 94.8% of your dreams,” he said. “And that is pretty good. But what we want to do here with the Employee Output Improvement Program is to get that figure up to 98%. We figure that a given employee only needs a handful of dreams to keep them motivated to keep going, but any more than that 2% figure and they are wasting potential productivity for the company. What we want to do here, is make a pledge to give up on 5 dreams each to try to get closer to our mark.
“Let’s brainstorm. What are the kind of things that might be things to look into giving up hmm? Let’s hear some ideas. Jenna, what was the last thing you gave up on doing?”
Jenna sat up in her seat. “Uh, well last month I decided I probably didn’t need to go to Alaska. I had wanted to go camping there since I was a kid but I bet it’s pretty cold there.”
“Perfect. I like it. That’s the kind of thing you would have to take time off work to do. But they can be small things too, what’s the last small thing that you gave up on?”
“What would be considered a small thing?” Jenna asked.
“Like a restaurant that is just slightly too far away that would probably be too big of a bother.”
“I’d have to think about that one,” Jenna remarked. She thought of the Japanese place she had wanted to try. She thought of the escape room down the road. She thought about what it would be like to share a fish taco with God. For the first time in a while Jenna’s attention was brought to the massive swirl of despair in her stomach. It churned around. She envisioned the despair as the most perfect despicable shade of evil purple and it was blowing raspberries at her from within. A purple monster. It went away when Jenna looked at a clock and noticed it was 11:20. In just ten minutes it would be fifteen minutes away from her thirty-minute lunch hour, so she was probably just hungry.
Jenna excused herself from the conference room. She didn’t actually say anything, she only stood up and walked out quietly. She stepped on Heidi the receptionist’s foot on the way out but she didn’t even seem to notice.
Her lunch was in a brown paper bag in the break room refrigerator next to several other brown paper bags. She had written her name on it to try to distinguish it from the others. However, everyone else did exactly the same. There was something strange however. One bag out place in the bunch. In the depths of the refrigerator, hunched over like a goblin snarling at the light, was a brown paper bag with the Taco Boy logo on it.
There was nobody else in the break room. The absence of peering eyes gave Jenna leave to investigate.
Jenna took the bag by the handle and peered inside looking for a shining light. What she found was perhaps the next best thing. A cheeseburger. “Is that yours?” said Pat, who was apparently in the room all along.
“I don’t think it is,” Gary replied—who was also in the room.
“I’m sorry,” Jenna said. “I thought I was alone in here.”
“You might as well be.” Al said.
Andrew began to sob pathetically in the corner. And Jenna put the Taco Boy bag back into the fridge.
The best minute of Jenna’s day arrived at 5:00. The sixty seconds from 5:00:00 until 5:00:59 filled Jenna with so much hope for the future that she forgot that there was nothing waiting for her at home. During that minute Jenna could stand up from her desk, collect her jacket, shake her purse to listen for her car keys, and enjoy the ray of sunshine that appeared when she knew that she got to leave work.
At 5:01:00 the sunshine is struck from existence by a far too familiar cackle. Ha. Ha. Ha. Ha. “We-eh-eh-eh-el it’s that time of day again,” Bea said. “Better hit the road huh.” Laughter. Laughter.
Jenna, Bea, Al, and the fourth one, loaded into her car and waited their turn to leave the parking lot.
The drive home was always slightly better than the drive to work, but for some reason it was longer. It made no sense to Jenna. The time it took to drive to work was 39 minutes, and the time it took to drive home was 37 minutes—and yet it took more time. Even accounting for picking up and dropping off the other members of the carpool.
Jenna’s stomach gurgled and scraped its knuckles against the underside of her gut. The feeling was returning. The purple monster was stealing the wallet of her psyche and taking a piss on her evening. Honestly, it felt like the beast had invited his other horrid friends over and gotten smashed and trashed the place. She could barely focus on the road and the only sensory input that was being processed came from the insane cackling from the non-metaphoric monster sitting shotgun.
“Watch the road there, Jenna,” said the unidentifiable office worker in her back seat.
“Or don’t” said Al.
Her eyes blinked and she realized that her breathing had become frantic. She inhaled and exhaled with great motion and wiped her face long enough to notice that her hands were no longer on the wheel. Even more bizarre was that nobody else in the car prodded her about it. Her condition, while far from being a secret, stirred no action from the carpool.
“I am going to pull over for a moment,” Jenna told them.
“Don’t be too long,” Bea said. “I want to be home by 6:00 so that I can have three hours before bed. Oh my god, the bed you guys, it is still broken. I’ve had my husband toss the thing over five times now and it still isn’t working right!”
Jenna exited her car and leaned against her knees trying to catch her breath. She cocked her head upwards to find a pole not three inches from her face. The pole belonged to a sign and upon taking a few steps backwards she witnessed the same advertisement from this morning. Taco Boy: Fish Taco with God.
Without even closing her car door Jenna embarked towards the entrance to the restaurant. Outside she saw one of the employees leaning against the building and smoking. The man had a wrinkled red Taco Boy uniform shirt with a stain on the back and a pair of pants that were on the brink of falling apart at the seams. His face was rugged and unshaven, and he had dark rings beneath his eyes. He removed his Taco Boy brand cap to wipe his forehead but accidently ripped it a little causing him to curse. The man sighed and fitted the cap back upon his head and rolled his neck before entering the restaurant alongside Jenna.
He took his position behind the counter and Jenna took her position in front of it. There was no line and nobody else eating inside. “Welcome to Taco Boy, let’s taco ‘bout what you want to eat,” the man said. His nametag read Poor as Hell.
“That’s not your real name is it?” Jenna asked.
“Well, no. It was given to me by my dad, Mr. as Hell, and he by his father. I’m the third, so it should really read Poor as Hell III, but neither they,” he nudged his head toward some unseen back room, “nor I care enough to get it fixed on my nametag.”
Jenna couldn’t tell if the man was joking or not. “Oh,” was all she could think to say.
“What do you want to…” the man sighed. “Taco ‘bout?”
“I was curious about your sign. It says fish taco with God?”
“You want an FTG? $1.99, unless you want extra cheese then its $2.35.”
“Are you sure it isn’t supposed to say cod? With a C?”
“No we only got the one c and its lowercase and reserved for the taco. The rest were stolen a few months ago. Besides we don’t carry cod here. Hard to be sure, though. Most of the fish meat we get only says ‘fish meat’ without any further clarification. I think its tilapia maybe.”
Jenna retrieved her wallet from her purse and placed a five-dollar bill on the counter. “I’ll have the fish taco with God, please. Extra cheese.”
“Okay, $2.65 is your change. For here or to go?”
She leaned back and peeked at her poorly parked car with the driver side door ajar filled with impatient office workers. “Definitely for here.”
After a minute and a half he had a greasy tray with a single fish taco on a paper plate. She couldn’t be sure, but she had the feeling that the paper plate had been reused. Jenna brought the tray to an empty table and sat down with it.
Jenna took a large bite of her taco. She chewed it carefully and waited for some sort of holy light to flash down upon her. The taco was subpar at best, and if Jenna was being totally honest with herself—which she decided she might as well give a try doing—it was horrible. The meat wasn’t cooked. Hell, it wasn’t even warm. The cheese fell out of the shell which fell apart entirely when she bit into it. And, nobody even bothered to add any seasoning. It was incredibly disappointing.
An abrupt knocking pounded the window directly to Jenna’s right. Bea was looking in at her. “Are you coming out soon?” she said, and still for some unholy reason, laughed.
“No,” Jenna replied.
“Well then I am going to call my husband and have him pick us up. He can be pretty handy when he needs to be. Just never with that bed!”
Jenna rested her forehead against the table and groaned. She peered up momentarily to see that Poor as Hell was leaning his head against the front counter. Jenna kept her head in its defeated position until she was sure that the gaggle of carpoolers had disappeared from her immediate reality. She pondered the visual poetry of the two broken people. Herself and Poor, both submitting to the weight pressing against their skulls ten feet from one another in the worst fast food restaurant that she had ever been in. For emphasis Jenna banged her head against the table three times.
After the third blow she brought her left arm up to the table to serve as a makeshift cushion for her now searing head. Much to her surprise there was something round and cold pressing against her forehead—upon further inspection she found it to be a wristwatch. Had she always been wearing a watch? She must have. 5:51.
Jenna removed it and felt the air hug her wrist. She placed it down on the table alongside the $2.65 she had received as change. Before she left, Jenna patted Poor on the back and told him the name of the company that she worked at. “It will be better but not for every part of life…” she said. “There is going to be a position opening up soon. I’d recommend you apply, tell the interviewer that your bed is broken and you’ll have a lot to talk about.”
Jenna left the restaurant and returned to her empty car. She only knew three things. Her first stop was the escape room, her target destination was Alaska, and somewhere in between she would need to find a bathroom to deal with the taco that already was wreaking havoc on her system.
Written by Adam McDonald