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Fiction: Sick by Joe Bongiorno 

 

SCREAMS OF WILD MEN fill Chez Beaudry’s cramped, sweat-dripping kitchen. Enzo scrubs dirty dishes while the line cooks play dodgeball at close range with a head of cabbage. Slinky Patel winds up, but slips on an onion peel. On the other side of the table, the bodies of the opposing team move out of the way like there’s an Apache helicopter opening fire. The fry cook with ginger mutton chops and a fleur de lis tattoo rushes forward and kicks the oncoming cabbage with his steel toe boots. It hits the ceiling and bursts into pieces that fall back down to the floor with a splat. Laughter erupts. The fry cook picks up a leaf, scratches his freckled cheek and flicks it over his shoulder. “Not even lettuce,” he declares. “It’s a chou!”

“Back to your stations,” Ralph the jittery night manager breaks in. “Two tables waiting on poutine and burgers,” he yells, sipping his usual mix of Red

Bull and coffee. “It’s the midnight rush, let’s go! It’s not algebra for fuck’s sake!” Wired, Ralph periodically shows up in the kitchen and yells. Eventually, he will lock himself in his office to even out his buzz with Irish whiskey. He often shows up to work the next day spitting blood through chipped teeth, having picking fights with strangers in bars when he could barely stand.

The chaos of the kitchen is temporarily suppressed. But the minute Ralph’s door shuts, the overstaffed kitchen of junkies, dropouts, and college graduates unable to find decent jobs falls back into anarchy. Slinky starts juggling avocados and the fry cook snorts a line off the cutting board. Meanwhile, Enzo works in silence, focusing on the sound of running water. He turns up the volume of the water in his mind in an attempt to drown out the unwanted thoughts. He imagines himself floating in the lotus meditation position, with crystal flesh reflecting the light of the internal cosmos. With the object of meditation in mind, he rinses each greasy plate in the scummy, tar-black water.

“Where’s the burger!” The Filipino head cook yells.

“Bacon burger!” The fry cook shouts. He does another line, and then brings the dish up to the pass.

“Bottom of the ninth! Bases are loaded!” Slinky cries, pitching an avocado toward the dishwasher. Instead of reaching out to catch it, Enzo ducks and the avocado splatters its green guts against the wall.

“You just cost us the game, bro,” Slinky says with a shake of the head. “Do I need to find a new outfielder?”

“Slink,” Enzo says, seeing the image of his meditative self shatter into stardust. “Is the boss here?”

“The boss?” Slinky laughs, “I haven’t seen him in like two days. Probably jumped off a bridge somewhere. I would too if I owned this piece of shit.”

“I need my paycheque.”

“No shit. He still owes me money from last December,” Slinky complains, counting the months on his long, bony fingers. “That’s why you gotta take the initiative,” he says, reaching for the burger on the pass and lifting the burger’s bun to steal a strip of bacon. “A guy’s gotta live,” he continues, chewing on the bacon and stuffing his mouth with a handful of fries. “What are we, animals? Skim a little off the top of the register.”

“The register,” Enzo repeats flatly, emptying a plate of half-eaten nachos into the garbage along with a couple of forks.

“This bitch is going bankrupt. I’ve already shotgunned the microwave, just so you know. My kitchen’s stacked with new cutlery. There’s even a fire extinguisher courtesy of the boss.” Slinky winked.

“Spaghetti Bolognese,” Mick the waiter shouts into the kitchen.

“Spaghetti Bolognese!” The head cook repeats, flicking cigarette ash into the tomato sauce.

“86 les chicken wings!” The fry cook cries, launching a flaming pan into the sink like a Molotov cocktail.

“Nobody wants chicken wings!” The head cook screams, flailing his arms.

“Table 6 is walking out!” Mick shouts, grabbing the bacon-free bacon burger from the pass.

Shaken by all the noise, Enzo takes a deep breath and closes his eyes for a moment. The kitchen is blistering hot. Sweat runs down his forehead. He tells himself to keep it together, not to show the fissures widening in his mind. After days of only enough sleep to wake from nightmares, his body is slowing down to a near sluggish halt, but somehow he finds the energy to push through. He drains the sink, staring at the black liquid as it oozes down the hole. Move, he tells himself. Do something, anything at all, or the thoughts will come rushing into his head. But now the slightest sound is like a screech: oil hisses, steel knives shriek, and the fan hums like a swarm of wasps. Spaghetti overflows from a pot of boiling water. Frying pans burn with charred omelets and French toast that nobody ordered. Finally, the fan blows its fuse and the kitchen fills with smoke. Coughing, Enzo waves the smoke away with a plate when an unwanted thought interrupts. He sees the fry cook stick his tattooed arm into the deep fryer, writhing in agony as the flesh sizzles in the bubbling 180-degree oil. But when the smoke clears the fry cook stands at his station, scratching his backside with a spatula, spitting in la soupe du jour.

Enzo rubs his eyes and turns away. The unwanted thoughts are becoming more frequent and gruesome. I am in control, he repeats to himself, determined not to end up like Adrian De Marco from junior high, the Honour Roll kid who lost his mind after graduation: a subject of gossip, laughter and disgust. He hunches over the sink and wets his face with ice-cold water. You’re not a freak like Adrian De Marco. Sweat drips down his armpits to his ankles. The clock reads 3:23 AM. Still a few hours left until the end of the shift. He has to hold out until then. Rent is two months late. Credit card bills are piling up. Kicked out of his grandmother’s bachelor, he had to move into a studio apartment and get a second job at Dunkin’ Donuts on the weedy side of the highway. Unable to think straight, he hasn’t attended class for several weeks. Only six credits left to his Chemistry degree. The scholarship for the master’s program is on the line.

His phone vibrates in his pocket. He glances at the text. It’s Rebecca. Up late. Why don’t you pick up? I’ve been calling you for three days straight. He has to convince himself he doesn’t want to see her face anymore. He cannot let her hear his trembling voice or let her look into his eyes warped by fear and sickness. What if she understands? What if she doesn’t? What if, after a long pause on the other line and change in tone, she says she has to go and hangs up?

He grabs a broom and begins to sweep under the tables of the dining room. The tattooed, 6-foot-tall Portuguese-Guatemalan waiter leans over the bar chatting up the barmaid in monosyllabic French. Only one customer left: a barefoot blonde passed out face first on a smoked meat sandwich. She raises her head for a second, looking at Enzo with squinting eyes and brisket stuck to her forehead.

“W-w-where the hell have you b-been?” she drunkenly stutters before her head plunges back down onto the sandwich.

4:35 AM. The “24HRS” sign outside glows in retina-burning neon. His hands begin to shake. Thoughts race. What’s wrong with me? Am I going insane? Depression—Schizophrenia— OCD—PTSD—GAD? One internet search produces hundreds of abbreviations for possible disorders. SSRIs— Benzodiazepines. Cognitive behavioural therapy. I can’t afford any of it. Breathing quickly, shallowly, he imagines an eruption of scorching grease surging from the sinks, pipes and vents, flooding the dining room. He sees himself reaching for the door handle as a wave of grease washes over him. He lets out a guttural scream, melting like a plastic doll in a microwave. I am at peace in the present moment, he repeats to himself, looking around the dining room. The light panels flicker. For a second, it looks like there might be a customer, but nobody is there. The blonde is gone. The waiter is nowhere to be seen. A ghostly silence ensues, lingering in the emptiness of the sleepless diner. Only one hour left to go.

Enzo finishes sweeping, unclogs the Maxi-pad-jammed toilet with a broken plunger and throws the leaking garbage bag into the dumpster out back. The only thing left to do is restock the condiments. Having already walked in on a waitress going down on a waiter, he makes sure to knock on the door of the walk-in fridge. There’s no answer. He peeks inside, keeping the door ajar with a mop pail. Just like the subway, or driving through a tunnel, he has to move fast before the walls crush him like the jaws of a vice. Quickly, he grabs the slimy ketchup jar from the shelf, but it slips from his fingers.
Glass shatters. Red splatters. The heavy door shoves the pail aside and slams shut with a clang. Panic. Backing up into a corner, he shuts his eyes and covers his ears. He is swept up in a wave of racing thoughts, and the more he grinds his teeth, and closes his eyes shut, the more the thoughts pull him in. They multiply like maggots, eating the dying cells of his brain, strengthen- ing with each act of resistance. He sees Rebecca reaching to kiss him, but he turns away, collapsing to the ground, convulsing and foaming at the mouth.

Then the door unlocks. Someone’s opening the door.

“Shift’s over, chief!” It’s Mick’s muffled voice. “Shit,” he says, seeing the broken ketchup jar and Enzo standing in the corner with chattering teeth.

“I’m gonna clean it up,” Enzo answers, noticing his white sneakers stained with red.

“It’s like a scene from The Shining in here,” Mick laughs. He looks around, examining the mess. “Here’s your tips. It’s gonna be a bitch to scrub,” he says, handing over an envelope of change. “You look like crap, man.”

“Just tired,” Enzo says, holding his forehead. “Mick,” he hesitates. “Can I ask you a random question?”

“Shoot,” Mick says, taking a can of soda from the shelf.

Enzo’s heart pounds with each word he utters. “Remember Adrian from junior high?”

“Adrian De Marco?”

Enzo nods. “Whatever happened to him?”

“Locked up. Lafontaine mental hospital, I think,” he says with wide eyes. “The guy went fuckin’ crazy.”

“Yeah,” Enzo mumbles. “Do you remember him ever acting weird back then?”

“Seemed normal to me, just another guy from the neighbourhood. I used to live right across the street from him. I heard he was on some meds that made him half-retarded, so he didn’t want to take ’em. Made him drool and shit. He used to follow Nadia, you know Nadia Paradiso? Everywhere she went, he’d follow her from behind like some psycho pervert. He says he used to listen to “Thriller” on repeat and ramble on about jujitsu.” He laughs. “I think he’s schizo or some shit like that.”

Enzo tries to match Mick’s expression, but the energy escapes him. “Schizophrenia?”

“Yeah, maybe. I don’t know,” Mick says with a shrug of the shoulders. His breath lingers in the air like a plume of noxious gas.

There’s a slight pause, prodding Enzo to break his silence. “But what if

it was you?” he finally asks.
“Then I wouldn’t have to work here anymore,” Mick says with a smirk, bringing the soda to his lips.

“Yeah,” Enzo replies, staring at the floor. He sees himself grabbing a meat cleaver and slashing wildly at Mick. His heart begins to pound.

“Don’t worry about the mess. Ralph’s passed out in the office. I’ll get the new guy to clean this up,” Mick says with a burp. “Get some rest.”

Enzo nods, holding the thoughts at bay for the moment. “See you tomorrow.”

“Cheers,” Mick replies, emptying the rest of the soda into the drain and crushing the empty can with his foot.

Enzo leaves through the back door to the parking lot, ignoring Slinky sitting on a bucket of salt, smoking his cherry flavoured cigarillos. He checks his watch. 5: 51 AM. The blood-orange sky washes out the lingering purple of night. His shift at Dunkin’ Donuts starts in six hours. He walks to his Toyota rustbox, lifting each heavy foot like he’s trudging through an oncoming wave.

In the driver’s seat, he holds the keys up to the ignition, but his hand is weighed down by the heaviness. “I am happy, healthy, and productive,” he says, taking a minute to force a smile. He catches a glimpse of himself in the rearview mirror and looks away. He sees the disgust in Rebecca’s eyes as she calls for help. Guards in white uniforms restrain him and force antipsychotics down his throat. He sees himself drooling in a straitjacket.

He checks his phone. Delayed text. Forget it. Don’t call. It’s over, the text reads. With a shaking hand, he deletes Rebecca from his contacts. His eyes water, but he forces himself to suck it back in, exhaling through his mouth.

“I am happy, healthy, and productive,” he repeats out loud, twice, three times, and finally turns the key in the ignition


Joe Bongiorno is a writer of fiction and non-fiction. His writing has appeared in Geist, Carte Blanche, Existere, and The Headlight Anthology. He is a high school teacher in his native Montreal.