Taco Bell at dusk is a surprisingly breathtaking sight. All awash in purple and pink neon hues, it vaguely reminds one of a simpler, more beloved commercial time in the U.S.: the 80s. But this was 2015, or at least what was left of it. While most people would choose to get a menial job at the beginning of summer or Christmas, when menial labor hiring was at its utmost peak, Skyler Kristy (who had always insisted to her mother that this first and last name damned her to, at least at some point, experiment in the clothing removal arts) happened upon the Now Hiring Friendly People sign in the middle of October, a strange off period in her small California town when all businesses still felt drained of any youthful clientele–and therefore of any life–mainly because they had all disappeared into the recesses of their respective colleges in cities and towns more worthwhile than this one.
But, the way Skyler saw it, applying to Taco Bell in October would lend her a competitive edge. Who else would think to turn in their application during this “off” season, hiring sign displayed or not? Even though she was “too old” (who knows where this ageist, “must have acne” view on what a cashier at a fast food “restaurant” came from?) for such a position–approaching mid-thirties territory and with no prior experience in the food or service sector–she just knew in her alcohol-soaked gut that she could charm the manager enough to give her the job. And charm, indubitably, meant fucking him in the back office for roughly forty-five seconds before he came. He was stout, round-bellied and originally from Chihuahua, Mexico. Skyler imagined he put that on his resume as a novel way to convince the whites of his true authentic fit for a company that once only ran commercials with chihuahuas claiming, “Yo quiero Taco Bell.” His name was Ramon, and she couldn’t stop thinking of that scene in Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion when Romy had to pretend to have sex with a mechanic of the same name in order to borrow his car. At least she was only pretending. But here Skyler was, allowing this disgusting man’s bare “burrito” to legitimately enter her. What the hell? She thought. I want the job.
She had ruminated over needing–absolutely having to have–this job over the past couple months, every time her mother, Shaylynn, drove to the shopping center to go to the grocery store in the same strip mall. Yes, she still lived with her mother at thirty-three years of age. But then, these were different times. It wasn’t as much of a stigma as it used to be. Was even embraced as a means for American families to develop a closeness that was, until now, only considered natural in other cultures. Shaylynn, on the other hand, didn’t see it that way. As she often said at the dinner table in the company of Skyler’s last remaining sibling, Tyler, and their father, Clinton, “Here I thought I’d made this place so uncomfortable that none of my kids would ever think to come back.”
Well, not so. Because there was the kind of uncomfortable that came from being subjected to the torment that only an immediate family member could render and the torture of the outside world. For the time being, Skyler could only put up with the former kind of abuse until she figured out how to proceed next. After divorcing her second husband in seven years, Darrin, an “oil man” (so he had originally billed it before admitting to simply working at a gas station in Modesto), Skyler was emotionally and financially bereft, feeling her best alternative to real life at this moment was returning to her parents’ home. Her room had long ago been dismantled, as Shaylynn had high hopes for Skyler’s future when she married the first man, Shane, who was one of the original coders to make money off the tech boom in San Francisco. But Skyler hated San Francisco, felt utterly miserable and confined there. She tended to take this contempt out on Shane, who soon turned to other women for comforts of the mental and physical variety as a means to avoid Skyler’s mood swings at all costs. Plus, even though she still looked “passably” pretty without makeup, all long blond hair, blue eyes and California tan skin that hid any traces of cellulite, her sullen air and lack of any attempt to “present herself” at work functions she had to attend with Shane further contributed to their demise. Fuck him, she seethed as she happily signed the divorce papers she was served. All it meant was more money to live off of while she plotted her next mistake.
That she met Darrin at a place called Beddy Bye Saloon should have been her first clue that he would be a liar, and worse, another two-timer. They were all two-timers. It was one aspect of the male psyche that Skyler never could wrap her head around. The need to have multiple women, a plethora of pussy. To her, it just seemed like it would be too much work. Like when you were at the ice cream store and they offered you not one, not two, but three possible flavors to combine. She chose chocolate every time. Keep it fucking simple. Why, for a species as dumb as the male, did they somehow manage to complicate this facet of life? It was a question she thought long and hard about while serving a few years in prison for an assault and battery charge brought forth by Darrin himself, who deserved the pistol-whipping he received in the motel she caught him in on, of all nights, Christmas Eve. She had been spying on him the entire day, preparing for her dramatic unveiling of his adultery by queuing up her boombox with Eartha Kitt’s “Santa Baby” to add to the flair of her beating. She didn’t want to shoot him, just scare him a little with the very sight of a gun. People–Americans most of all–really quiver at the sight of a gun. Which Skyler found strange when considering this was the country where the sight and use of guns had been most normalized.
The girl he was with–Skyler estimated her to be somewhere between sixteen and twenty-two–was equally as appalled by the sight of a belligerent, pistol-waving and whipping Skyler raging to the tune of “Santa Baby.” That truly was the most bizarre element of all. That she still wanted to somehow pay homage to the holiday rather than playing something more apropos like Kelis’ “Caught Out There.” This detail even became a talking point for her defense to attempt to convince the court that she was not of sound mind while executing the crime.
Whatever, Skyler shrugged as she was cuffed and shoved into the squad car. A few years in jail is no different than anywhere else. In fact, it was even better, or at least, more structured, and therefore facile in comparison to wayward civilian existence. She could see why Charles Manson latched onto it so long, why Orange is the New Black often made it feel like a glorified sleepover with occasional screwdriver masturbation.
When she got out, it was to her mother’s “care” that she released herself, the sole caveat being that she had to get a job and earn enough to move back out on her own. Skyler waffled as long as she could, mostly preferring to smoke weed with Tyler, himself just as aimless and undriven as he stumbled through his community college curriculum. When they could sense it was getting to be the time when their parents were going to arrive back at the house to judge them, they would snort two lines of cocaine each to feign having had a productive day, whatever that may have meant to Shaylynn and Clinton.
It was the latter who happened to serve as Skyler’s first customer at the drive-thru. No sooner had it seemed as though she was offering her body to Ramon so as to ensure he would ignore her answer to the prior criminal convictions question on the application than there she was, passing Daddy a chalupa and some cinnamon twists with a large Pepsi. Clinton almost dropped the bag, he was so shocked. Skyler, likewise, revealed a sour expression upon seeing the identity of her first customer. She had hoped she could conceal just what her new job was from her parents so they wouldn’t riddle her with endless shit about how they didn’t pay for her to go to Chico State and major in Poli Sci only for her to end up working at Taco Bell.
He shook his head at her in profound disappointment and told her to meet him in the parking lot. Though she knew she hadn’t earned her fifteen-minute break just yet, Skyler knew she had a special in with the boss and flounced outside with a cigarette ready to light in hand. Her dad was chomping on his chalupa with some marked gusto considering how upset he was. Maybe it was precisely because he was upset that he needed to retreat into his food.
“You gotta quit Skyler. This isn’t who you are. You’re supposed to be better than this.”
She had never heard her father take such an active interest in her life. Not when she was an unruly, promiscuous teenager, not when she had married the wrong men and not when she was being locked up in the slammer. Naturally, he would choose to do so when it was way too late to make much of a difference. She chortled as she lit her cigarette. She didn’t feel like wasting her breath on explaining to him that with a criminal history, Taco Bell was a dream occupation most ex cons could only hope for. And that until she squirreled away enough to make her grand escape to St. Lucia or some shit, this was the best–all–life had to offer: fake ground beef made of food pellets and faulty soda streams.
Instead, she took a drag and remarked, “Taco Bell looks beautiful at dusk, doesn’t it?” A woman must appreciate beauty when and where she can. That was the great lesson of prison. And as far as she was concerned, there was nothing more beautiful than a bright pink bell against a purple backdrop after the sun had just gone down. It looked kind of like the cap of a circumcised penis. “What are you doing at Taco Bell, anyway?” Skyler demanded. Clinton crumpled his chalupa wrapper and took a swig of Pepsi. “I don’t know. I didn’t feel like going home yet.”