Shaun Anthony McMichael

Story image for Carousel's by

A s things at the restaurant are requiring more of Cameron, he’s losing it. We watch with the same devil-may-care interest we have when the deep cleaners scoop and scrape the grease from the exhaust vents above the ovens. Or when our General Manager Ross descends with demands from corporate in the form of a staff manual. Cam removes his glasses and puts a hand over his handsome face to hide his disgust; unlike us, the low-level front-of-the-house staff, Cam is Assistant Manager and unable to merely eye-roll and make whack-off gestures in the face of new standards. Cam, if he wants to keep his job, has to enforce the new regs, follow state law, and turn over a weekly profit.

Meanwhile, Cam’s losing it. He’s losing it the way most people do: by getting too close to people below him. In Cam’s case, the newbie, Gabe.

“Remember, we don’t call them ‘rags’. They’re ‘towels’,” GM Ross rags on Gabe. He was requesting a fresh batch in the Sani bucket by the kitchen exit.

“Sorry. Towels,” Gabe defers, giving that wounded look with eyes moistening to cry.

“Who cares?” Cam intercedes. “Rag. Towel. Call it whatever you want, bud.”

Corporate cares, Ross reminds. Calling them “rags” gives off unpleasant connotations (menstruation, homelessness, manual labor). “Towels” has more pleasant connotations (massages, beach combing, warm baths at home). Customers – excuse us, guests – experience the difference.

“Understood! 10-4. Gotcha,” we say.

The closest things GM Ross has to leadership qualities are his height and the stern demeanor intimated by his dark beard and hair; in terms of charisma, the dude should have become an undertaker. Cam on the other hand is decent as far as managers go. He lets us drag ass. And backs us up with uppity customers. Fuck, sorry: guests. So, we give him winks that say we’ll enjoy shit-talking later about the new regs. Connotations? This isn’t English 101, it’s a fucking Carousel’s!

But Carousel’s Restaurant and Bar is getting bigger britches. Though the chain’s goal has always been to be number 2 to Red Robin, the new CEO sees it as a competitive brand. Our county-fair-themed family eatery offers a relaxing dining experience for friends and neighbors from all walks of life! But behind his smile-clenched grill of pearly whites, CEO is bent on polishing up Carousel’s mediocrity with new menus, amenities, and the etiquette manual.

“Towels it is,” Cam nods, running his hands through his sandy blonde hair. A surfer boy face, his aqua-colored eyes betraying an ache for better times. “Towels. Wow. So much better.”

But Ross is already tearing out of the kitchen to spot-check us waiters upselling the new drinks, leaving Cam to expedite the torrent of plates for sale beneath the kitchen’s heating lamps.

Good thing one of us is watching, because Cam misses plating a Blue Ribbon Blue Burger with its side ramekin of blue cheese; almost sends out a 4H Sausage Plate without pickled onions; and botches the red, white, and green (salsa, sour crème, and guac) arrangement on a Corn Maze Quesadilla (intentionally sans elle). All so he can run into his office for some reason. To make out with Steph, one of us servers? An “emergency” phone call, he says. It’s official, Cam’s fucking up. A few of us are already chewing on how to cozy up to Ross. Somebody says he likes hair metal. Make him a mix quick, we say to ourselves.

Orbit-sml ><

O ne of Cam’s biggest beefs with corporate’s new rollout is the requirement that waitstaff offers all guests a Dunk Tank Tanqueray-Cointreau Punch. A mouthful in more ways than one. No matter how young or old the guests are. No matter if it’s a geriatric first thing on Sunday or a nubile cheerleader last thing on Monday. Dunk ’em. If you don’t offer it to the guest and they’re of age and they call you on it, you have to bring them one for free!

“And this meted out by an industry that shuns comping liquor,” Cam gripes. “In a town where the liquor control board is already up our asses.”

The hawkish liquor control board is no joke. One of our best and brightest, Zander, got canned a month ago for serving a beer to a minor. He’d been a little hung over, sure. A little wobbly, maybe. But how he wasn’t able to spot that little bitch-snitch, we’ll never know. I’ll have a huh-huh-huh-Heineken, the kid asked, like somebody who’d never ordered, let alone drank, a beer in his life. Kid barely had peach-fuzz on his stash. But Zander must have still been drunk himself. Right on, homie. And like that, Zander was 86’d. Fired. Outed. Blacklisted from all service industries for life. Couldn’t even get his dream job as a male stripper. We hear he’s a grease monkey downtown.

It’s partly in Zander’s memory that Cam continues his tirade against corporate’s lush-happy new policies. “Half of our servers are just barely twenty-one; half of our customers are college kids who can’t hold their liquor; and they want us to Dunk Tank them.”

“More like Drunk Tank them,” we chortle. “It’s basically a Tom Collins from hell!”

“Might as well serve up DUIs for dessert,” he throws back. We congratulate Cam on his joke, but we’re quick to busy ourselves with other things. The upselling’s no problem for most of us. More liquor, bigger tabs, higher tips!

Besides, why wouldn’t you want a stiff drink? You’re at a Carousel’s in Valley City! The most popular menu item is a Chinese-inspired salad served with a dressing that’s 99% chicken fat. The hard-boiled eggs are preserved in icy, urine-colored formaldehyde to cut down on prep time. The ambiance is an acid trip version of your worst fair experience.

The restaurant itself is circular, its center being a ten-sided bar designed as a pastiche of the classic merry-go-round hub with its circular, mirrored marquee. Each table boasts a life-size carousel horse, each face frozen in a crazed equine snarl, veins bulging out, teeth bared, calling to mind the dentures of the octogenarians that haunt the early bird shifts. We want a BOOTH, got that? A b-o-o-t-h! Okay, Your Highness, as if you’re unique among gods and men for wanting a little more cush on your tush.

“Welcome to Carousel’s! We’re so glad you’re here,” we say, lying through our teeth-gritted smiles as we seat them. “Can I interest you in a Dunk Tank Tanqueray-Cointreau Punch?” It’s 10am! We have no shame.

Vicky sure doesn’t. She’s sold four already. Vicky, always a front-runner among us. All three-hundred pounds of her.

But the newbie, Gabe? He’s a little different. When two of his fellow college kids sit down in a booth at 11am, either he forgets (because he’s like 19, or he has some weird teetotalling scruples) or he’s distracted (by the hot girl on the guy’s arm, specifically her tramp stamp, whose tribal patterns arrow down at her pink thong). Whatever the case, Gabe neglects to upsell.

“Uhm…” The guy’s mouth curves up at Gabe. “You didn’t offer us Dunk Tanks.”

“Uhm. No. No, I didn’t,” Gabe admits, looking out the window where the sun ignites the windshields of vehicles zooming by on the highway.

The guy’s got a shaved head and wears an eyebrow ring and a smirk. “Well, I guess, make it two Dunk Tanks then. Chop chop!”

Gabe asks to see their IDs but it takes him two whole minutes to add up their ages in his head. He’s asked us for help multiple times with this. He’s got some weird block with adding in his head. Nerves? A TBI? We tell him to buzz off or bring a calculator. Eventually, he realizes the couple’s of age. Barely legal, but still. He’s just cost the restaurant and himself. There’s no way those two assholes will factor the free drinks into his tip. He walks with his head lowered in shame to the computer to punch in their order, their giggles, guffaws, and smooches painting his cheeks shame-red.

We pat him on the back. “Fucking up, newbie.”

Gabe hisses through his teeth.

“Don’t worry about it,” Cam says at the server station as he comps the order. His deft fingers punch at the hulking DOS-era touch-screen monitor. He drops off the two liquor-brimmed straight-up glasses to the college couple. “It’s 11am, get a life,” he says as he walks off.

“Hey, we don’t make the rules!” Eyebrow-Ring calls after, waving the table-top trifold. And they down their drinks before driving to class.

“Better than him selling to a minor,” Steph says.

“You don’t have to show it to Ross on the sales report,” Cam retorts.

“Bet Eyebrow-Ring is Ross’s nephew or something,” Vicky puts in.

“He doesn’t look enough like Bella.”

“Damn, you’re salty today, Cam,” Vicky cackles.

Bella’s a barfly who posts at the bar and stays after closing time while she waits for Ross to get off, when they fuck in the back of his canopy-covered truck before Ross goes home to his wife and kids. It’s been going on for years. We’ve all glimpsed a butt cheek or two, but keep it on the dl because why piss Ross off?

And can any of us, Cam included, really throw stones?

We all know Cam makes out with Steph as he closes her out for the night. Why she lets him, God only knows, she’s like half his age. So Cam will give her the good shifts? Keep her away from the bar-tops where the service has to be junk because of the small tabs and quick turnarounds? Let her keep a bigger cut of her tips? We all pay out a percentage of our take to the bartender, to the expediter (if there is one), and to the hosts (if they busted ass bussing our tables). Whatever. We each have our hustle and grind.

We all know why Cam swaps spit with her. Chance to massage her firm l’il lady lumps while her hoochie hoop earrings and big lashes flutter around his face, sapphire eyes sparkling for him once or twice, maybe the way his ex-wife’s did when they were kids. We all would tongue-tussle with Steph in a heartbeat. One or two of us have even! Carousel’s work parties get crunk. One reason Gabe probably doesn’t go, though we always invite him.

“You should come out with us tonight, newbie,” Vicky says working on the closing checklist. “Let one of us pop your cherry.” She looses one of her witchy cackles from the half-round where her throat and double-chin merge.

“I’m waiting for marriage,” Gabe says.

“Good luck with that,” Vicky scoffs and cranks up old-school Biggie, rapping along to Dead Wrong. “What’s the matter, newbie? Don’t want to hit the clits?” Vicky taunts and butt-bumps him.

Vicky’d been locked up for forgery, not prostitution, though her giant nails and flirtatiousness might suggest the latter. Her nose is a beak on a doughy face dotted with two dark currants, her eyes. The icing on the cinnamon roll of her face is thick makeup more colorful than Mardi Gras. In back-of-the-house and front-of-the-house, she’s the cock-of-the-walk, swishing her stringy blonde hair, her rooster’s comb. She makes the bar top her henhouse, taking orders, expediting them, then running them, balancing six steaming plates without batting an eye. And when a guest gets in her face, she blunts them with one of her cockatrice gazes, even as she accedes to their demands. Vanguard servers worship her. Newbies like Gabe steer clear.

Orbit-sml ><

E ven though he’s worked here a couple of months already and at least three new people have been hired since, we still call Gabe ‘newbie.’

“Watcha readin’?” one of us asked him on one of his 10’s out back.

“A book,” he said from his seat on the curb rounding the dumpster. He waved away the smoke from our cigarettes. We’d all started smoking just for something to do on our breaks, which became the reason we needed the breaks, which also became the reason we needed to work so much so we could afford the cigarettes we started smoking. Smoking’s a self-perpetuating merry-go-round of vice we never get tired of bantering about.

Abnormal Psychology: Finding the Order in Disorder by—” we read, but the nube shifted so we couldn’t see.

“It’s boring,” he said.

“You trying to become a shrink?” we asked.

“No,” he said. “Just trying to understand myself.”

“You’re lying. We’re all trying to become something. You want to be a shrink. Admit it!”

“I’d like to help people one day,” he says.

“Ha! See?”

We remind Gabe that Joe was a paralegal – almost a lawyer! Sherry had been a substitute teacher, almost getting her teaching cert. Rand was a nurse’s aid before he saw that kid die. And Sara’d been a cadet in the police academy before all the machismo bullshit drove her away. And who could blame her? And you think we’re bad!

“So you go to community college,” we said. “Well, we know all about books. We’ve all got some college under our belts. Some of us have even gotten close to getting our AA degrees. A couple of us are going back as soon as we can scrape enough tips together…”

Gabe headed back in early.

Since then, he’s taken his 10s at the bus stop – the same place he arrives and departs from – never bringing a book into work again.

If he thinks his shit don’t stink because he goes to Valley City College, he’s dumber than we think. We’ll go back one of these days. But what’s the rush? Transfer to the U? Get saddled with a bunch more debt? Get bagged by a career that makes us work for more than we’re paid? Salaried gigs are a bitch! Just ask Cam. He’s always bellyaching.

“Christ, I wish I could go back to tending bar! Or construction. When I built houses, I could see what I was working for coming to life.”

“But then you couldn’t hang out with us!”

But Cam doesn’t hang out with us. We suspect he’s churchy. Or maybe he was churchy. He wears a little gold crucifix necklace beneath his chambray button-up manager shirts. Maybe that’s why he sympathizes with Gabe so much.

Orbit-sml ><

T hough we’re convinced Cam’s just blowing smoke up our asses, if he really had worked construction, he’s sure as shit missing his chance to make a killing. Valley City’s a cancer on the joint between the big city and the suburbs. Through raising more skyscrapers and condos, Valley City is helping the two distinct parts – town and city – grow into the same thing: one continuous mass of human engorgement. We read about it in Sociology.

Valley’s downtown still has all these kitschy storefronts, history hubs, and mom-and-pop shops from the mining days of its inception. But thank god, the corporate gods are coming for them too so those old know-it-alls can stop making us feel like dumbass yuppies.

Though Cam keeps a pretty tight lip, we suspect he’s a bit of a closet know-it-all. We caught him shaking his head when a Coors Lite truck ran into a storage facility’s brick entryway, its façade preserved from the first Ford factory in the state.

“What the fuck do you care?” Vicky asked.

“Maybe they can repair it,” Gabe said.

“They just don’t make things like they used to,” Cam said.

Orbit-sml ><

C am didn’t start out all buddy-buddy with Gabe, who’d been Ross’s hire after all. When he first got onboarded as a host, Gabe wouldn’t shut up about how he’d been a cashier at the Cheesecake Factory’s bakery.

“Handling high volume,” he said.

“Couldn’t hack it there, now you’re here,” Cam jibed but paused to watch Gabe struggle to limp off the burn.

“I… I changed jobs,” Gabe said. “So, I could be closer to home. I take care of my mom.”

“Sorry,” Cam said. He never apologized to any of us for giving us shit and we’re not a bunch of debauched orphans! We’ve got fam!

“You didn’t know. It’s okay,” Gabe said. But Cam’s Santa Monica suntan face goes greener than the clouds of a squall. He disappears into his office for some reason. To make out with Steph some more? Emergency phone call, he said.

He’s been fucking up for a while, come to think of it. When he hired Steph, he promoted her to server after only two weeks. Even though we all had to host for a month as a customary rule of thumb. Learn the menu. Pay our dues. Put our time in. Plus, it had technically been Gabe’s turn.

“Why am I stuck as host?” Gabe demanded. “Just because you’re making out with her?”

We heard it. It was just after shift change on a Thursday afternoon. Dinner rush was coming. Guests could have heard it! Though we all felt our opinion of Gabe lift. The dude had more balls than we thought.

“Hey!” Cam pointed a finger at him. “That’s not nice. It’s none of your business, that.”

That was all he was going to say?

“You’re a good host. And I’m going to get to you. But Steph has serving experience.”

She did. That was fair. We patted Gabe on the back. He was a good host, busting-ass clearing two-tops, big-tops, every-kinda-tops. Taking and filling drink orders. Keeping an okay rotation, though Vicky complained he always saddled her with more tables. “Rides me more just because I have a big butt and he thinks I can take it. The churchy little fucker.”

Gabe did fluster easily, which probably made Cam doubt if he was server material. Once during a rush, Gabe crushed a glass right into the ice bin as he was trying to fill it up. A nube move, as everybody knows you’ve got to use the ice-scoopers.

“Fucking up, newbie,” we taunted, even as we helped him empty the ice bin. Because the broken glass blended in with the ice, you had to dump hot water in until each cube melted; then after you fished out all the shards, you had to refill it, lugging by twos the big ice buckets. A mistake you only ever made once, if you were dumb enough to make it at all.

All this is why we were completely on-our-ass-floored when Cam promoted Gabe to server.

“I’m going to help him,” Cam insisted. Though after the third or fourth time helping him check IDs, we could see in Cam’s face that he was adding the decision to the matchstick house of regrets that is his life.

But Cam continues defending and befriending him.

During a post-dinner-rush slump, Cam announces to everybody back-of-the-house that he’s got a new musical act to share with us. Singer-songwriter Gabe Vanderbeek. Then, on comes a scratchy demo of Gabe guitar-playing and singing the most thinly-veiled Christian prog rock any of us have ever heard. What little we hear of Gabe’s nasally vocs over the gravelly crunch of bar-chorded distortion is about walking “the Way” despite getting offered off-roads into vice.

“Sounds like shit,” Vicky says.

“You weren’t supposed to play it!” Gabe says.

“You left it with me. I thought…” Cam says.

“You think you can do whatever you want,” Gabe growls, stomping out.

“Yeah. Fuck the man!”

“Yeah! Oh, wait, that’s you, Cam. Fuck you. Ha ha.”

“Fuck you for making us listen to that crap,” we say.

“It sounded better on headphones,” Cam says.

“I’ve taken craps that sounded better,” Vicky says.

“You’re just jealous somebody’s trying to do something with their life,” Cam says to Vicky. “Not everybody’s okay staying a loser.”

You can hear a to-go fork clatter on the scuffed linoleum. The sound of the air wheezing through the grease-clogged vents above the grills. No manager has ever talked to Vicky like that. Not that we remember anyway. And our collective memory goes back longer than years we can count.

Vicky nods her head, “Nice. Real nice, asshole. Make fun of the fat ex-con coming up on ten years sober.” She’s tearing up. “The fat ex-con working round the clock to put her little niece through college…” She’s touching the back of her hands to her eyes. Fuck. We’ve only seen her cry, like, once!

“He didn’t mean it, Vick.”

“Yeah. He was just upset.”

But Vicky isn’t mollified. Her hot tears melt her makeup into smears of black, blue, and red. “I am trying!” she roars and flees the kitchen out back for a smoke. “You handle the assholes in my section now, you fucker. See how you like getting treated like shit all night while getting paid less than a hooker. This isn’t over.”

Orbit-sml ><

I t’s a night from hell. A hellish night. Our favorite.

During the hectic hours, our demand-harried skins burn and we gnash our teeth while we pleasure in the pressure, knowing that each absurd customer request – more dressing, jalapeno poppers without the jalapenos, another beer, cheeseburgers without the burger, milkshakes without the milk, kids portions for adults, more water, more napkins, crispy bacon, crispy fries, another Coke – will all kindle an epic after-hours rager where, before blacking out for hours of sweet oblivion, we’ll bump uglies in dizzying configurations inconceivable in daylight.

It’s a Thursday night, the new Friday for this friendly-neighborhood eatery. There’s the usual descent-of-the-dweebs from Radi-Us Wireless. The cellphone company’s national offices clutter the hill above our Carousel’s complex. Every night at the late happy hour (9pm-to-close), it’s night-of-the-nerds. We don’t know what most of them do, actually. Probably just call-center workers, not programmers. Whoever they are, they blitz in, overworked, pissed-off, and ravenous for our half-off hot wings and drink specials. Dunk Tank not included.

Next, a troupe of ancient-looking bishops ferry themselves in off a meeting of the archdiocese. Each rheumy-eyed stiff wants their tea scalding. I want it to burn my tongue when I drink it! And after draining flasks of whisky into their mugs, they down kettles of bubbling liquid without a wince. Keep it coming!

Then, a wedding rehearsal dinner crashes in and even the hardest of us doubles over. Vicky raises cane in the kitchen, uncaring who hears. “Are you fucking kidding me? You’re bringing your wedding party to Carousel’s? How long are they hoping that marriage is going to last?”

And all while the cleaning crew waits out back to scour the fat off the hoods hanging over the ovens. They’re heavy with petrified bat wings of grease. But to do the job, the main grill has to shut down. For an hour.

Cam cancels, all apologies to the cleaning crew. Bad timing. We’ll reschedule. I’m so sorry guys!

We hear the shattering of glass. Gabe’s standing there with a jagged-rimmed Collins glass. “Smooth move, nube,” one of us says. But we aren’t laughing. A harbinger of what’s to come.

The Radi-Us geeks all want separate tabs! They’re a 32 top with separate tabs! And the bridal party too! Bridezilla wants her Bullseye Ribeye cooked well done! Does she know how long that shit takes to cook well done? And there are so many orders for wings and margs that one of us has to drive to a neighboring location to get more boxes of wings and bottom-shelf tequila. Okay, maybe it’s two of us that end up going and maybe we end up getting each other off in the car while we wait for the dipshits to fetch us the supply, but still!

By nightfall, booths one through ten are boneyards of chicken wings. The poultry apocalypse! The whole place smells like vinegar burps from buffalo sauce and smokey farts from wayside fermented agave.

Cam’s been beautiful. Something about the pressure has called up dormant spunk from his surfing days. He’s dispatched complaints with gusto; comped cold plates before they’re even sold; 86’d the Sunflower salad when the deviled eggs run dry; plated ticket after ticket of Huckleberry Hound Pie, Chicken Fried Steak, Elephant Ear Eggplant Pasta; and he’s even bounded back onto the line to help the beleaguered cooks.

But then comes a cry, “Cam! Cam!”

It’s Gabe. It’s his first hell night as a server. His first elbow-elbow trench-crawl through fiery rivers of demands and vitriol. His face is a pall of battle fatigue.

“Cam! Cam!”

“What newbie?”

Gabe gives a shot-dog expression. “There’s. There’s a girl in number 5. Her age. Her birthdate! It’s close. I just – my head hurts. Can you spot me? Just double check…”

The kitchen printer spits out a cascade of tickets. A burner goes out.

“Christ on the cross, Gabe! If you can’t figure it out, dunk her for all the shits I give!” Cam jumps back into the fray.

And moments later a Dunk Tank in a Collins glass, cherry garnish on top, gets sold to a twenty-year-old with a self-satisfied smile as she slides the drink aside, clasps her Gucci knock off, and exits.

Orbit-sml ><

C am’s nowhere to be found. Not in back-of-the-house, not curbside, not front-of-the-house, not out back smoking by the dumpster. We look everywhere, pretending not to know where Cam usually goes to hide. Pretending to not know who he hides with! It’s our last-ditch effort to save his ass.

“I want him found!” Ross says, towing Gabe by the collar.

Cameron’s in his office. But Steph’s not there. No one else is there. He’s bent over a kid’s book. He’s on his cell phone.

Sky grows dark… That’s right, honey. Moon glows bright… Yep. Yep! Climb into bed and turn out the light! Oh my gosh, bud. You’ve got it. Wow, buddy.”

We crowd in the doorway. We listen to Cam listen to his toddler-aged-son repeat back to him the whole If My Love Were a Fire Truck book.

“Cam,” we say. “Something’s happened.”

But Cam’s not there. He’s on a clamshell-white beach paddling off, and up and up, then down the blue, blue valleys.

We hear him accede to his ex-wife’s demands and apologize in the face of her berating and his promise to send the payments quickly. And next month’s check early! We hear him plead for another Saturday. He’ll plan something this time. Something Harold will like. He’s been reading the parenting books the judge ordered—

Ross grabs his cell out of his hand and chucks it.

Cam shoves him.

“You’re out of line,” Ross says.

“You’re out of line!”

“Front-of-the-house is just about in flames right now! Just what—”

“I. Was. Taking. My. 10!” Cam says. “Now excuse me. While you’re kissing ass at corporate, I’ve got a restaurant to run.”

But when Cam walks into the bar, he finds Gabe seated in between two liquor board inspectors wearing dark windbreakers with broad white lettering on the back, declaring their offices.

The snitch-bitch is nowhere in sight. According to the liquor board dicks, it hadn’t been one of theirs. Is it just us, or is Vicky cackling louder than normal? If Gabe had half a brain, he would have noticed the snitch who’d tricked him had been Vicky’s niece. We’re not spilling the beans. Not our place.

Grabbing Cam, Ross points a finger at Gabe. “Since you’re running this restaurant, do you mind explaining to me why—”

“I did it. I told him to do it,” Cam says. “Fine me. Fire me.” And Cam explains everything.

One of the bishops stands up and points a liver-spotted, furry-knuckled finger at Cam. “His confession is true. We heard him with the foulest most damnable language dismiss the boy’s plea for help!”

“Then you’re both fired!” Ross says. From the bar, Bella’s face flushes and she hugs her lower lip with her teeth. Gonna be a good night for Ross.

The liquor control dicks hustle out Cameron and Gabe for processing in their mobile unit parked out front, where they’ll fine them and give them court dates. Ross stalks behind them with an embalmer’s loom and grump.

With them all gone, the bar’s decagon carousel center sparkles resplendent. Its rounding-board overhang features griffins and imps and ovular mirrors in which we see our reflections elongate into hobgoblins that clean and sing, bring bread and drink, and shuffle our bloated, cholesterol-clogged guests in and out. The bar’s floor disconnects from its foundations and begins to spin and we dervish with it. We turn up some hair metal. Vicky, Steph, the bishops, the Radi-Us nerds, the bridal party, we dance. The batwings of grease catch fire and the ovens, the gas tanks, the storehouses of fat, the chicken lard dressing, the CO2 in the soda fountains, the vats of formaldehyde, it all ignites and the ensuing firestorm funnels butane-tinged flames through our tilt-a-whirl of ever-renewing delight and pain. We dance in the flames.

From the corners of our eyes, we watch with mild interest as, post-processing, the two expiated figures share a bench on the dead boulevard. One waits for a bus home to his mother. The other? Maybe waiting for the sun’s fireball to outmatch the one we’ve created. He’ll be waiting a long time.

In our night-long revelry, we can’t make out their conversation. But we’ve never been faulted for our lack of imagination. Just ask the angels.

“What’ll you do now?” the man asks.

“There’s an internship working with people with developmental disabilities. If they’ll take me. You?”

And the man turns in the direction of old downtown, the vacant, hulking buildings going violet in the predawn. “I’m going into retro-fitting.”


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Shaun Anthony McMichael

Author image of Shaun Anthony McMichael Shaun Anthony McMichael has taught writing to students from around the world since 2007, in classrooms, juvenile detention halls, mental health treatment centers, and homeless youth drop-ins throughout the Seattle area. Over 85 of his poems, short stories, and reviews have appeared in many literary magazines online and in print, including the forthcoming short story collection The Wild Familiar from CJ Press. He lives in Seattle with his wife and son where he attends church most Sundays. Visit him at his website,

© Shaun Anthony McMichael 2023 All Rights Reserved

The title picture was created using Creative Commons images - many thanks to the following creators: Vitaly Gorbachev, Daniel Reche, and Mali Maeder.

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