Working at Hamburger Hut when you’re a meth addict and a lesbian is just like working at Hamburger Hut when you’re a meth addict. But you can’t tell Cassie that. She thinks being gay makes her special, makes her “lesbionic” she says and flexes her bicep, the one with the inked portrait of Jesse James.
She leaves me alone. I’m pear-shaped and she likes apples. I’m dirty blonde and she likes them clean. She wants Sabrina, with her perky ponytail, her cute-enough-to-be-a-counter-girl confidence. I work the fryer, and maybe that’s not glamorous but I’m good at it, so good that when Cassie disappears to snort lines off the toilet tank, I also cover the grill. Multi-tasking, says my career counselor at the JC, is a transferable skill, one crucial in my future field, emergency medical services. No one puts “pretty” on a resume. No one puts “laughs at lame jokes if you bench-press 275,” which is all I can tell Sabrina is good for.
Cassie’s habit makes her the best employee or the worst. She cleans the grill in half the time it would take a strongman or she fucks-off and leaves it for the morning shift. I stay behind and clean up for her because I’m that kind of friend, one who steps up when needed. “Steps up when needed,” my counselor is going to like that. Plus, it’s hard to be mad at Cassie. I like guys and all, but she has this dimple that comes out when she smiles. Gets me every time. I imagine her in an old-timey photo, cigarette dangling from her mouth, pistols at her hips. And I want to be there, too, the girl in the corset, or maybe just the horse.
We’re locking up when Cassie asks Sabrina if she needs a ride to the Dump—that’s what we call it. It’s really a field on top of a hill next to the dump where the air is foul but the cops never come.
“You know I got a ride,” she says. Her chariot is a truck with wheels up to my tits, doors so high you need to pole vault your way in. We watch from Cassie’s LeBaron as a guy in a cowboy hat reaches across the passenger seat to help lift Sabrina inside.
“He’s obviously compensating,” I say. Cassie pulls up behind the truck and tails them.
The Dump is the Dump: a keg, a bonfire, a car stereo turned all the way up. People we met in grade school, including Javier with his BB guns, shooting at empties in the firelight. Cassie takes a turn, knocks down six in a row like no big deal. Someone passes her a joint while people hoot at her shooting, but she’s a dumbass and looks to see if Sabrina’s looking. She’s not. Then again, who am I to talk? I’m nursing a Coors Light, reciting lines from Anchorman and The Hangover with Gabe Allard, a guy known for being able to put his own dick in his mouth. That’s been the rumor since 7th grade. We leave eventually, drive by the big box parking lots, but nothing’s going on. Cassie drops me home, and I fall asleep to a rerun of Grey’s Anatomy.
I don’t bug Cassie about the drugs—we’ve been close just four months since she started at the Hut, and she’s the best friend I’ve got now that Karlee left for college. But I can’t also hold my tongue about Sabrina, how she’s begun joining Cassie in the bathroom. “We’ll be with you shortly,” I get used to calling from the fryer because I cannot be in three places at once, though that would be even better for my resume, for my future career. I will one day be equipped to revive Cassie should she get a bad batch, but a defibrillator won’t fix her lack of common sense. “Sabrina’s using you,” I blurt out during our nightly smoke break. “She doesn’t talk to you when her boyfriend’s around, you know?”
“That’s because she wants to get on this,” Cassie says and runs a display hand across her torso. “If she gets too close, the cow-tipper will catch on.” Cassie says she’s been fooling with Sabrina in the bathroom, second-basing it is all. Sabrina stops her after a couple of minutes, says she’s worried truck boy will find out, says she’s not really a dyke. As if that needs saying.
“And if she tells her boyfriend? Says it’s your fault? You’d better go into hiding.”
“I know you want to help, but you need to quit worrying about me and get your own self laid.” She takes a drag, watches me.
“I’ve been laid before.” Cassie raises her eyebrows. “Serious, I’ve laid, like, two guys. Did oral on another.”
Cassie laughs. “Did oral, huh? We should be calling you the Hut Slut.”
I try to give her my hard face.
Cassie runs out of meth and starts looking rained on. Mud puddles collect under her eyes and the old oil seeps up from her pores, the slick as thick as Vaseline. She keeps her hands in her pockets for the shaking, like someone chilled through. And the mistakes—dropping meat patties on the floor, forgetting to add pickles, sneezing all over the vegetable vats.
It’s in this state she has her accident. She’s rolling a dolly stacked high with boxes of cheese when she slips and ends up in a tangle on the floor, the dolly’s crossbar handle biting down before she can get clear of it. She sits up, holds her hand in front of her face, and watches as blood lavas down her middle finger. “But I…” she says and passes out against the condiment packet cabinet. I tie off her finger with an apron string, call 911, and then look for her fingertip, which has rolled beneath the register, fingernail attached. It’s a small bit given all that blood, but I wash it off and put it in a cup with crushed ice just in case. I may not be a paramedic yet, but watch enough hospital dramas and you pick up a thing or two. Turns out my efforts are in vain, and a plastic surgeon has to take a chunk of Cassie’s ass to make her finger whole again. Good thing she’s still on her mom’s insurance.
Since then Cassie’s been trying to quit using, says the accident got her thinking about the drugs and what they do to her. “It could have been worse,” she says flipping a row of sesame buns. “Could have been my nose. I would have had ass at the end of my nose.”
“Brown-noser,” I say. That’s how it is now, all ass jokes all the time because they’re the only thing that will bring out her dimple.
Things are different between Cassie and Sabrina, of course. “What’s her deal?” Cassie asks. She honestly doesn’t know.
“Her deal is she likes dick,” I say.
Cassie won’t let it go, and a few days later, fueled by what I’d guess is a morning fix, she arrives in full swagger, rearing to take another run at Barbie, which is exactly what she does, angling closer, arm propped up on the milkshake machine, talking Sabrina up until pretty soon she’s got her laughing, got her coming back between customers for more. I start thinking Cassie is lesbionic—she’s going to turn Sabrina right here in the middle of Hamburger Hut, the two of them inching closer together. Cassie makes her move, reaches out and rests a hand on Sabrina’s waist. Sabrina flinches.
“Sorry.” Cassie jerks her chin toward the back. “Bathroom?”
“Nah, I’m trying to quit.”
Sabrina turns her back to Cassie, flips her ponytail over her shoulder and starts refilling the napkin dispensers.
“Sabrina?” Cassie says. She says it again, and then one more time: “Sabrina.” No response. Cassie stands there looking out the front window, her head calculating. With her face slack she looks younger, looks as naïve as she’s been acting, and I think of her as a little kid, when she didn’t put gel in her hair, or have tattoos, or know how to smoke drugs out of a bottle cap. She probably played with Barbies of her own, or maybe Tonka trucks. And here she was in a world still stuck like that: it’s pink or blue, or you’d better be tough.
Cassie itches her nose with the back of her hand, starts to walk away. I want to grab Sabrina by the ponytail, drag her out the front door and push her into traffic. Show her how it feels to be so easily flattened. Before turning the corner into the kitchen, Cassie stops, swivels back, and extends her mast of a middle finger. “You know what, Sabrina?” she says. “You can go ahead and kiss my ass.” Then she struts out the backdoor, revs the LeBaron, and peels out onto 3rd Street.
The next day I give my two-weeks notice. I’m not about to work at the Hut without Cassie, and she’s not about to come back. I know; we talked on the phone last night. She likes to call me when she’s drunk. I’d leave now if it didn’t mean having an uncomfortable conversation with my career counselor. She’ll be proud I followed protocol and that I asked my dad about moving back in with him to focus on school fulltime. I may not be able to talk sense into Cassie, but I can become a paramedic as fast as possible, someone ready and capable if Cassie’s heart stops or a jealous guy takes his fists to her or she loses another fingertip. Next time after they load her into the ambulance, I won’t be standing on the sidewalk, watching it pull away. I’ll be in there at her side—me, Mandy Ann Johnson—the one with the high voltage paddles, or at least the CPR.
Kara Vernor’s fiction has appeared in [PANK], The Atticus Review, Wigleaf, The Los Angeles Review, and elsewhere. She is an Elizabeth George Foundation Scholar at the Northwest Institute for Literary Arts and was a Best Small Fictions 2015 finalist.