My first day on the butterscotch line, they tell me I can eat five chews an hour.
Frank says, “That’s more than on the taffy line.” Frank works across from me. He and I box the butterscotches, fifty a box.
“If they’re so worried about money,” I ask, “why do they let us eat the candy at all?”
Frank throws ten or fifteen pieces into a box. Then, he asks me if I know Kevin Mercer.
“Kevin worked here for three months. Left a year ago, I guess, and opened up the hot dog stand outside. Know why he quit?”
“Never ate the candy. Without the candy, this job sucks.”
I wonder how much worse this job could be than the one he has now. “I guess he eats the hot dogs,” I say.
My second week on the job, I start to make rules to pace myself. I’ve been throwing two or three butterscotches into my mouth at the top of each hour, and the long stretches after my rations run out have been murder. As the candy goes by on the line, it talks to every part of you: your hands, your nose, your soul.
The first rule I make is, one piece at a time. Last Friday, I told Frank I’ve got a big mouth, and he said, “If a whale worked the line, he’d get five an hour just like you. You think he’d bitch about his big mouth?”
I didn’t know if whales bitched, I told him, but did he have to be so rude?
The second rule is, stick to some kind of schedule. At first, I think I should have one butterscotch every twelve minutes. But then I think of Swagger, and how slow the strippers there unwrap themselves, the good ones, anyway, and make you wait for it. So maybe I’ll have one piece at the one-minute mark, then wait for at the half-hour, then one every ten minutes for the rest of the hour.
I ask Frank which system he thinks will work better.
“I just eat them when I eat them,” Frank says. “But everybody’s different.”
“You must have seen guys try different ways, though. Who’s worked here the longest?”
Frank looks at me like I just dumped his box of butterscotches onto the floor, and then says, “I have.”
By the end of my third week, I have tried five different schedules, and even messed around with eating two pieces at a time again. But the problem isn’t the schedule. It’s the candies. Too many of them go by. It just makes you want endless chewy butterscotch.
On a break, I tell these things to Marcus, the floor manager. Then I ask him: What if somebody sent the butterscotch rations down the caramel line, instead, and the taffy down the butterscotch line, and the caramel down the taffy line? That way, we’d all get excited when the candies we could eat came by, but we wouldn’t care about the ones we were cutting or wrapping or boxing. We could store up candies, too, like a bank account.
“A bank account,” Marcus says. Then he tells me to go get a hot dog.
“I hate hot dogs,” I say.
“Then just eat the bun,” he says, and I do, wishing he’d listen to my idea like I listened to his.
Over the next few days, I bring in different things to chew on in between pieces of candy. I like the springiness of balloons, but Frank complains about how loud they squeak between my teeth. A piece of my old brown belt makes less noise, but the leather makes my tongue sting by lunchtime. Silly Putty disintegrates in ten minutes, and I pick it out from the spaces around my teeth for the rest of the day. I probably swallow half of it down with my butterscotch rations.
And anyway, nothing replaces the candy, nothing makes me want it less, not even for the ten minutes between late-in-the-hour butterscotches.
Frank and I hardly talk anymore, but one day I ask him, “You ever try quitting the candy?”
He says, “This job sucks without the candy. Only reason to quit the candy is to quit the job.”
I know he’s right. You can’t quit the candy.
Soon, start to think about the candy in a different way. I imagine naked fat women swimming through grain silos full of butterscotches. I think of my grandfather’s anal medicine, and I wonder if stuffing butterscotches up my ass would keep me from wanting them so bad, or if they have to hit your taste buds to work.
Then, I have an idea: I could easily fill two boxes at a time, one box with my left hand, and one with my right, switching every so often to make up for the difference in speed between my two hands. If I can fill two boxes, I should get double rations.
The next morning, I wait in the parking lot to tell Frank my idea.
When he opens his car door, I say, “I could fill two boxes at a time, and get double rations.”
Frank looks at me the way Marcus did when he told me to eat a hot dog bun. Then he starts to walk away.
“Where are you going?” I ask.
“Inside,” he says. “so I can do my job and then go back home.”
I walk after him, and put my hand on his shoulder. “Frank, wait.”
As he brushes my hand away, I notice how bony his shoulder feels, like I could crumble it in my hand. And if I did, he couldn’t work the butterscotch line anymore. Marcus would have no choice but to ask me to fill two boxes at a time.
Then I grab the collar of his jacket and pull it hard. Frank falls onto the pavement. He looks up at me, and where his eyes usually are I see two unwrapped butterscotches. As I reach for the one on the right, I think, if he has one butterscotch in each eye, his head must be full of them.