The Mustard

Working with Baldwin was not exactly an enjoyable experience, but he wasn’t all that bad. He had his moments and I have to admit that he was growing on me a little bit as we spent our nights manning the drive-thru at a decaying fast food joint on the edge of town.

The place didn’t get many customers anymore and it only took one look at the condition of our building to see why. The original red and yellow paint job was severely peeling, one of our windows had been boarded up with a piece of plywood for over a month now, and only three letters in our sign lit up anymore. Who would want to eat food from a place like that? Only the most foolhardy or desperate late-night loser would come anywhere near us.

There were so few customers that the manager, Randy, only scheduled two people for the night shift. Those two people were usually me and Baldwin. Baldwin was one of those individuals that could only be described by using the word “quirky,” and I couldn’t quite figure him out. He had a certain youthful enthusiasm, but, unfortunately, that attitude did not extend to his fast food duties. He complained about everything. He didn’t like taking orders, he didn’t like making food and he always seemed to disappear when it came time to haul out the trash at the end of our shift. The dude also liked to run his mouth. He would sometimes talk non-stop for ten or even fifteen minutes, not even slowing down to wait for my replies. Often, in the dead of night, when the only things moving in the drive-thru lane were old newspaper pages and fast food trash being blown around by the wind, he’d pepper me with stupid questions or start yammering on about some topic that I had zero interest in.

I was going to school during the day, trying to get a degree, and I would often do my school work in between customers. One Tuesday night I had my head in my books when Baldwin started up.

“Hey, so I was watching this show about Bigfoot yesterday and, like, these scientist dudes were trying to track him through this dense-ass forest at night,” Baldwin said excitedly.

“Wait, let me guess. They didn’t find him.”

“How’d you know?”

“Are you stoned, Baldwin?”

“A little bit.”

“Look, I’m trying to study here. Could you not bother me right now? Please?”

A hurt look washed over Baldwin’s face, but then it quickly vanished and he broke into a smile as he put his hands up and backed off. He sauntered into the kitchen area and I went back to my books. I had no idea what he was doing back there, but as long as he left me alone and didn’t catch anything on fire, I didn’t really care.

It was quieter than usual and we hadn’t had a customer in over two hours so I quickly got caught up on my studying and then went back to check on him. He was hunched over a vast array of condiments and was mixing them all together in a big, spectacular mess. He reminded me of a kindergartener learning how to finger paint.

“What in the hell are you doing?” I asked.

“Okay, check this out, man. This is going to be epic! I’m whipping up a special spicy mustard for our burgers. It could be just the thing we need to help us bring in more customers,” he said as he licked a bit of the slightly yellowish-brown concoction off his finger before quickly grimacing. “Ugh, I think it needs some more work.”

“It looks like chimpanzee diarrhea,” I said flatly.

“Have you ever seen chimpanzee diarrhea? I bet it doesn’t look anything like this,” Baldwin shot back.

“Stop wasting the condiments,” I scolded. I left him alone to resume staring out the drive-thru window at the gloomy, empty night.

A few shifts went by and I noticed that two things had abruptly changed. The first one was that we had way more customers and the second was that Baldwin now seemed eager to make the food for them. I also noted that sometimes the same customer would come back two or, on rare occasions, three times in the same night. That was really weird. Something was definitely going on.

In no time at all, the line of cars at our drive-thru went from being a trickle to a full-on fire hose. Cars began to back up so far that they spilled into the parking lot of the liquor store next to us almost every night. And people were ordering tons of burgers. Sometimes two or three bags even. In a little over a week, we had pulled in more money than we had in the previous four months. This got the attention of Randy, who came in one night and said he wanted to have a meeting with the two of us. He scheduled it for right at the end of our shift. When Baldwin and I finished up another long night of serving a seemingly endless parade of customers, I just wanted to go home and get in a few hours of sleep before I had to be in class, but instead we had to go into Randy’s office.

“So, it’s obvious that we have had a sudden and very dramatic spike in sales during your shifts,” he said. “Do you fellas know what could be the cause of this?”

“It’s the mustard,” Baldwin said without hesitation.

“Mustard? What mustard?” asked Randy.

“I invented a new type of mustard for our burgers,” Baldwin proudly trumpeted.

“Baldwin, do you understand that under no circumstances are you supposed to deviate from the instructions on how to assemble our burgers?” Randy asked, clearly irritated. He pounded his fist on the desk and continued. “There’s a specific protocol that you need to follow, son! You just can’t start throwing some weird new mustard all willy-nilly on our 100% all-beef patties!”

“I told him that, sir,” I said.

“Well, I can go back to making them like I used to, if you prefer, but I don’t think the customers will be too happy with that,” Baldwin said, with just a hint of nastiness in his tone.

Randy took off his glasses, set them down on his desk and rubbed his eyes. He was silent for almost a whole minute.

“A new mustard,” he said softly as he sat back and stared up at the ceiling. “Hmmmm. Wait a minute! This . . . could be huge! This could be just what we need! This could be the start of a whole new ad campaign! Baldwin, there just might be a modest wage increase in your future!”

“What about me?” I asked.

“Did you help out with this brilliant idea?”

“Uh, not really, but—”

“Well, we don’t have the funds to be handing out raises left and right, but maybe at your next review, we can talk about it.” He abruptly turned back to Baldwin. “This is just the kind of out of the box thinking that we need! If those other fast food places can slap a piece of stinky Swiss cheese on a burger and act like they created the fuckin’ universe, then we should be able to play up this new mustard and ride it all the way to the bank.” Randy stood and shook Baldwin’s hand vigorously while totally ignoring me. Then he sat back down, picked up the phone and swiveled around in his chair so that his back was to us, signaling that the meeting was over.

In less than a month, everything had changed and it was definitely not a change for the better. Well, not for me anyways: I now found myself working the drive-thru on the day shift with a whole crew around me, and I hated every single, rotten, stinking second of it. Word about Baldwin’s mustard had gotten back to those who were in charge and they absolutely loved it; there was a new ad campaign that was just about to hit televisions nationwide.

Baldwin got a huge raise and, on top of that, he didn’t have to work the drive-thru anymore. Instead, he got to hang around outside, by the drive-thru lane, wearing a mustard bottle costume and handing out samples to people waiting in their cars. He even brought a small boom-box out with him and would perform a choreographed dance routine to popular hip-hop and pop songs. It made my blood boil to see him dancing around out there, laughing and high-fiving with the customers, flirting with girls and generally having one hell of a good time, while I was working like a madman all day long.

What was even worse was that Randy got promoted to a cushy job at corporate headquarters and no matter how many times I told my new manager, Duncan, that I had school during the day, he kept scheduling me for shifts that conflicted with my classes and I was falling way behind. My life was crashing down around me while Baldwin had become a celebrity almost overnight. Everyone in the whole town absolutely adored him. The high school football team invited him to their biggest game of the season and he danced with the cheerleaders on the sidelines. Some parents began hiring him to perform at their kids’ birthday parties. He was featured on the front page of the newspaper and he was invited to be a “guest meteorologist” on our local television station, where he stood in front of the weather map and gave the forecast in his mustard outfit. He even began to receive fan mail.

One late afternoon, as I was taking the trash out after a particularly grueling shift in which we were short staffed because two people called in sick, I passed by Baldwin, who was gallivanting around as “Mustard Man.” It was just too much for me to take.

Before I really knew what I was doing, I threw down my bag of garbage and I hauled off, popping him in the face. He dropped like a rock right there on the small patch of grass between the drive-thru lane and the Dumpsters.

I looked around. Everyone in the line was staring at me with expressions of disgust and hatred. Whatever anger I had toward Baldwin instantly evaporated right then. The realization dawned on me: He hasn’t done anything wrong.

It suddenly became crystal clear to me that I was the bad guy in this situation.

I was nothing but a bitter, jealous asshole, and I had just punched out an innocent kid. I really, truly hated myself at that moment.

Baldwin slowly staggered back to his feet with his hand on his nose as blood gushed all over the place. I apologized profusely, trying to get him to understand how truly sorry I was. Baldwin looked at me for a long, long time and then broke into a blood-soaked grin.

“It’s okay, dude. I ain’t mad at ya,” he said. As he hugged me, he added, “We’re still buds.”

While it was extremely nice of Baldwin to forgive me so quickly and easily, no one else seemed to feel the same. Not only was I promptly fired, but it became obvious that I was probably the most hated man in town. The few friends I had grew more and more distant and soon stopped returning my calls altogether. And even though I applied for any job I could find, nobody would hire me. I eventually ended up dropping out of college because every time I went to class, I was shunned, and my instructors all told me that there was no way they’d give me a passing grade.

I also made the front page of the newspaper. The headline read, “Minimum Wage Malcontent Mauls Magnificent Mustard Mascot.” Someone at the newspaper must have had one hell of a laugh coming up with that one.