THEN A PENGUIN WALKED IN #1

THE PENGUIN - PART ONE
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THE SMELL OF COOKING grease hung thick in the air the way a blue whale might. The sponge-like cloud formed itself around Dominick Hanrahan like a malodorous cocoon, blocking out everything but the heat that wafted up off of the deep-fat fryers. He stared blankly into the four steaming vats of oil and tried to think back to happier times — to better days — but the stench of superheated vegetable oil made it more than a little difficult.

Dominick was idle and bored, as was wont to happen at this time in the morning at the Happy Hamburger Drive-In Restaurant. Between the breakfast and lunch rush there wasn’t much to do, other than clean, and that wasn’t a thought that appealed to him for the moment.

Instead, he clutched at a plastic salt shaker and wondered what might happen were he to plunge it into one of the fryers. He figured the plastic would melt, but what would happen to the salt within? He looked around the narrow cook aisle as he mulled the decision over in his mind.

On one side of the aisle sat a large grill with bun prep station and condiment bar. On the opposite side — where Dominick worked — lurked the four fryers, a french-fry scoop station located to the left, and an industrial freezer to the right. Everything had been done up in gleaming stainless steel because it was easier to clean.

The boss, Mr. Finkleton, was in the back taking his pre-lunch constitutional. He’d taken a book with him into the employee restroom, which meant he’d be a while. Melissa, the lady who manned (womaned?) the grill behind him, wouldn’t care if Dominick fried the salt shaker. If anything, Mel might egg him on.

In the end, he decided not to do it. While he was positive that Mel could get away with such shenanigans, Dominick knew for certain that he himself would be caught. He’d always had a knack of not getting away with things.

For a moment his eye caught the mark on the palm of his right hand. It had been there for as long as he could remember; a curious paleness that he’d always thought looked like a hammer right in the center of his palm. He’d asked his parents about it many times, but they’d never had an answer. A birthmark, nothing more.

Suddenly, cutting through Dominick’s musings, a shrill beeping sounded from the computer up front, its insistent cries begging – nay, demanding – to be attended to. He panicked and shoved the salt shaker in his pants pocket.

Following the beeping was a loud clatter from the back of the store. More specifically, the clattering and banging came from the employee restrooms.

“I’ll get it!” Mr. Finkleton called, bursting from the men’s room and buckling his belt as he hurtled up the cook aisle.

Dominick braced himself as the boss hurried past for fear of being pushed into one of the fryers. The narrow cook aisle inside the Happy Hamburger left little room for two average-sized human beings to stand back to back and Mr. Finkleton was larger than most string quartets.

Sweating, Mr. Finkleton arrived at the computer, pulled on a headset with microphone, and pushed a red button on the computer’s right side.

“Happy Hamburger, how may I help you?”

The computer was an overlarge piece of machinery that was made up of a monitor and keypad. The keypad wasn’t like the keyboard on your typical home computer. Each key on this pad had a picture of a hamburger, cheeseburger, or other product offering at the Happy Hamburger. Mr. Finkleton was punching keys furiously as the customer ordered from out in their car.

“Hanrahan!” Mr. Finkleton yelled, though Dominick was only feet away. “Fries! We need more fries!”

“Yes, Mr. Finkleton.” Dominick mumbled.

Dominick opened the freezer door to the right of the fryers and let out a sigh. He moved in the methodical, unhurried way of someone who was clearly just going through the motions.

Dominick placed a handful of frozen fries into a small, rectangular, steel mesh basket, and plunged the basket into the boiling vegetable oil. He stood, motionless, stoic, statuesque, gazing with feigned interest at the fries as they bubbled, popped, and hissed in the liquid fat.

He could sense the frenzied activity going on behind him as Mel created hamburgers at supersonic speed. Dominick just stood and waited on the fries. Wishing, no praying, that there was more to life than the Happy Hamburger.

To be continued . . .



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