I, Fry Cook

I, Fry Cook

Burger Lux felt like the unholy fusion of a crypt and a factory. A craptory, as I called it.

There was no dining area, just four drive-thru windows along one side of the building. Behind the windows, a swarm of machines cut and fried and wrapped and packed 24 hours a day, churning out combo meals with mediocre perfection.

And then there was me.

I guess I should have felt lucky to get the job. I heard that 400 people applied for the job and I only got it since I had a bachelor’s degree in computer science. Which was a joke since I wasn’t even allowed to fix the machines. My job was for public relations, to give some truth to the slogan: Burger Lux: The Restaurant With a Heartbeat.

My grandfather had always threatened me with the prospect of flipping burgers. It was the reason to study hard, take the right subjects, get a good job. He used it as a curse, the most negative thing he could think of. If the burger-flippin’ car wasn’t in the garage again, it was the burger-flippin’ government cutting his social security again. And now his grandson was being paid by Burger Lux just to have a burger-flippin’ heartbeat.

Coming in for my shift, I passed Helen, the second-shift heartbeat with a master’s degree in economics. We nodded at each other, and I hung up my coat and logged in.

“Welcome, Jax,” my supervisor North said from the speaker. I’m was almost 100% sure that North was a bot. If not, he was the first person in the world to fail the Turing Test. He never had anything interesting to say, just reminders to check the ketchup levels and such things that he could easily see himself. The first thing I did was to build a bot that would answer him for me.

I launched Jax2 and heard the simulated voice say, “Hey North. How are you? It’s cold out there, isn’t it?”

I muted the speaker before I heard North’s answer. They could go for hours and listening to two bots talk drivel to each other was enough to turn your brain to the consistency of soggy French fries.

I was halfway through watching a movie when the blue light blinked on the console. I had programmed it to alert me if North said anything important. I looked at the log of the conversation.

North: We’ve gotten complaints about the tomatoes on the burgers being smashed. Can you check on that?

Jax2: Sure thing, boss. I’m on it.

I got up with a sigh and went out to the “kitchen”, the meal production assembly line. As soon as the door opened, I was overwhelmed with the clack and grind of machines. The air was hazy with steam and grease.

The tomato slicer was indeed mashing the tomatoes. It was supposed to cut the ends off a tomato, then cut it into slices and slide them onto a conveyor belt to send them over to Assembly. After every tomato, the blade was wiped and run through a sharpener. But the spring that held the sharpener against the blade was weak and it had stopped touching the blade. I was supposed to put in a ticket so another machine could come fix it. Instead, I stopped the slicer and jammed two pennies under the spring to push it into place.

I unscrewed the knife and sharpened it but stopped before putting it back. How hard would it be to cut a tomato? Could I, a puny human, keep up with the unstoppable Burger Lux machine? It seemed more interesting than watching a movie, so I pulled a tomato out of the vertical holder and cut the ends off. The workspace wasn’t designed for a person to use it, but I did okay. When I had cut the tomato into slices, I pushed them onto the conveyor belt.

It turned out to be pretty easy. Even at the nightly peak, Burger Lux didn’t make more than three burgers a minute and not all of them used tomatoes. Most tomatoes gave five slices, so as long as I could cut up one tomato every four minutes, I wouldn’t fall behind.

Over the next week, I disabled other machines to try doing their jobs too: the cheese loader, the egg cooker, the soda refiller, and every other burger-flippin’ job I could reach. Of course, I had to disable the error alerts so the head office wouldn’t think all the machines were breaking.

My favorite station turned out to be packing. This was where all the parts of the meal came together to be put in a bag and sent to the window. It wasn’t hard since a form came out with the food to hold everything. Two combo meals? The double meal form arrived with slots for the two drinks, burgers and boxes of fries. I just put everything where they went and sent it on.

One day, on impulse, I took a pen out of my pocket and wrote Have a great day! on the bag as it was going out. I started to write that on every bag until I got bored and started to mix it up.

Stay awesome.

Watch out for that ice.

Burger Lux loves you.

You’re going to do great today.

It became like a game, thinking of what to write and I started making lists even when I was off work. For the first time in my life, I looked forward to coming to work.

Until the day when a real, live Burger Lux manager came to see me. This wasn’t North, I knew immediately. The man was waiting for me in the parking lot when I got off my shift at 8:00 am, as if he didn’t even want to go into his own restaurant.

“Jax Woodard?” he said. “I’m Gene Panero, associate VP of sales for Burger Lux.” He didn’t wait for me to reply. “Have you been writing messages on the bags as they go out?”

“Yeah.” No point in denying it. I was already thinking of how long unemployment would last and what I might be able to get after that.

“They’ve been getting a lot of comment,” he said. “People love them. Sales from this location have gone up 14% in the last two weeks. It’s that human touch that connects with people and shows that Burger Lux really is the restaurant with a heartbeat.”

“Oh. Good.” I guess I wasn’t getting fired after all, but right then I just wanted to go home.

He smiled for the first time. “Actually we’ve decided to expand your initiative to all our locations. We’re developing an algorithm that will produce over a million inspirational or heartwarming phrases a day. The writing machines will be installed next week. You should be very proud.” He held out his hand.

I forced a robotic smile and shook his hand. “Burger-flipping right,” I said.

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