Ballot Day

Samuel Milligan

The mosquito net baby is crying again. Little red face, little red clenched fists. An older woman – the kid’s grandma, I assume – sits on a park bench every morning and feeds it spoonfuls of mushed peas. When she’s not feeding the thing, it sits in its stroller covered in white mosquito netting while Grams takes a smoke break in the sweet pepperbushes. Sometimes she even turns her back to the stroller, to the baby. I walk past them every morning on my way to work and, once a week, I think: I could steal that baby. But I never do. It’s always wailing on about something or another.

It’s a big day at work. It’s Ballot Day and it’s Big Meeting Day. Every third Thursday of the month, the regional manager calls all the senior store managers into our location – we have the biggest table in any HARVEST dining room in the tri-state area – and they talk loudly about how much focaccia goes on a sandwich and managing employee bathroom sitting times and optimal ice bucket drainage techniques and whether the data on red pepper flake usage should be broken down by shift and personnel. Those Wisconsin Street bastards are pushing for a more expansive data collection process. That way, they can fire Steve and Janet and whoever else they don’t like by couching it in numbers. Sorry, Davy boy, but the spreadsheets say you’ve got a heavy hand on the cold brew pour. Get fucked. Our shift manager, Rita, tells me to find something to do, so I set myself up at the focaccia station and cut all the crusts off the big pans of bread. Close enough that I can listen, but with a job that keeps my eyes down so it doesn’t look like I’m listening.

“I mean who knows, right?” the regional manager is saying. He’s been calling for a tiny ceramic cup of espresso every twenty minutes. I don’t know how the dude isn’t shaking out of his chair already. A little bit of chest hair leans over his collar like a king looking over a parapet. “Maybe on a given day it’s just that Bruce is over scooping the ice cream for affogatos. But then you can look at the numbers, broken down by shift, broken down by who is working and when, and you can say huh…Bruce is overscooping every day. Or maybe Bruce is walking out with whole goddamn pints at the end of his shift. Maybe he’s making gifts of it out in the street when we’re not there. Some salmon evade bald eagles, yeah? Even though every bald eagle deserves to rip open every juicy salmon. Some’ll get through. You know what I mean?”

All the senior store managers nod like lemons in an earthquake.

After Big Meeting, Rita hands out the ballots. You’re supposed to fill it out on break but I take my fifteen minutes just standing in the deep freeze. I imagine I’m a big rig engine running too hot. I imagine I’m a weapon that needs to be kept in a room surrounded by a moat of liquid nitrogen. I imagine that my skin doesn’t feel like hot, greasy parchment paper, that my feet don’t hurt, that my fingers aren’t perforated by a million tiny cuts.

We’re testing out pre-made dough for these sweet little pot pies we’re rolling out soon as a pilot location. In the deep freeze, I poke smiley faces in the top of every pot pie with a metal straw. There’s like eight full sheet pans worth of frozen dough shells and I only get through a third of the pot pies on my fifteen minutes. Oh well. Some will be happy and others won’t. I wait until Rita leaves for lunch – she always takes the bus down to WildCorn, all the way down the hill toward Peak Mall, so we know she’ll be gone until like 2PM – and then look at my ballot.

“Who are you ranking?” asks Shannon. She’s older than me and I wish she was my sister. She’s the one that taught me about the secret dumpster. We never rank each other low, even though I know she hates how I use the plastic cup instead of the metal ice scoop. The scoop gets too cold too fast and I never get to hold it long enough to warm it up. The cup is much quicker and less traumatic for my fingers. I’ve never been someone who wants the temperature to change fast. And I’m not the only person doing hateful things. Shannon once scraped mold off the top of a cream cheese tub that had sat under the counter unrefrigerated for three days and served customers the formerly moldy cream cheese. That’s the type of thing I’d rank her low for, if she wasn’t so fucking pleasant and kind to me.

“I don’t know,” I say. “I hate this whole process.”

“It comes faster every month.”

“We were able to get rid of Kevin that one time though,” I point out.

“Which Kevin? Tall Kevin?”

“Kevin Grackle.”

“Oh,” says Shannon. She draws the word out like she’s rolling dough. She shakes her personal cup. It’s a third full of chunked ice. Two thirds empty, if you look at it another way. Ha ha. She shakes it again like she’s checking to make sure it’s just ice. A panhandling sound. A ghost in the wall. An accident at a construction site. “There’s always another Kevin Grackle, though,” she says.

“Remember when he took a sheet out without oven mitts?”

“Remember when he did the thing with the jelly doughnuts?”

“Remember when he was slicing all the meat backwards?”

“Remember when he wore his shirt inside out for a double?”

I smile at that. We could play Remember When all day long. “Kevin Grackle wasn’t even that bad,” I say. “In retrospect.”

Shannon sips from her empty cup. “You know he reapplied to work here?”


“A few months after he got fired.”

“I can’t even imagine that. Imagine that! Everyone votes for you to get fired and you…show back up? Voluntarily?”

“He was just dull,” says Shannon. “He probably thought we’d have all gotten balloted out by then too.”

“Dumb is at least better than being, you know, evil.”

“We can’t ballot ‘evil’ out fast enough,” says Shannon.

“No kidding,” I say. “Evil gets promoted to senior store manager.” I flatten my ballot, grab a sharper grease pencil, and make my selections. “Maybe this is the one,” I tell Shannon. “Maybe this is the one round of balloting where the company sees we’re actually operating at peak performance, peak efficiency, no overservers or oversharers or overshitters or any of that stuff they’re all worried about. They’ll look at us and say hey! We don’t need to make them fire anyone, they can just have the same team forever and ever. Top to bottom in tippy top shape.” I gesture like I’m calling a runner safe at the plate in the fourth inning of a ten-run game.

“Nope,” says Shannon. “There will always be a new Kevin. Keeps the rest of us cleaning when we could be leaning.”

When I walk home, Granny and the baby are still orbiting the same bench they were on that morning. “Do you want one more spoonful?” she’s saying. “One more for the wee monster?” she coos. I imagine the baby looking her right in the face and saying: “Hit me, GramGram. Another shot of pea moosh.” The baby knocking them back. It’s been eating since I walked through the park early in the morning and I want to comment. I want to walk up to her and say: Hey lady, that’s a hungry fucking baby.

But what business is it of mine how much green slop some other person’s kid eats? I walk on by. Grandma tucks a cigarette behind her ear. “One more spoonful!” she prays aloud.