California Tortilla is a mad house.
Mothers clad in yoga pants and elementary school sweatshirts wrangle herds of their screaming, snotting broodlings. This one wants chicken with onions and not cilantro because it tastes like soap or maybe steak instead, or no…yes…chicken but no peppers or sauce or beans. This one wants an orange soda. No, grape. No, milk. No, chocolate milk. And yes that is all for here not to go and Jacob and Reese and Logan take what you get and don’t throw a fit and for god’s sakes go sit down or you won’t get anything at all.
One day a week at the burrito place down the street from our house you get a free kids meal with every adult meal you purchase. This promotion takes place on Wednesday. Don’t go there on Wednesdays.
I like kids and I’m sure that these kids are normally fine and nice but now they are all hopped up on sips of soft drinks that normally would be considered illicit and bites of the brownies that come with every mini burrito or kids-adilla. I understand. T2 treats Pepsi like it is crack. He joneses for it when he can’t have it (which is most of the time) and turns bouncy and manic on those rare occasion his dealer (me mostly) supplies him with a hit. But T2 is at home doing his spelling words and I have been dispatched to grab something for dinner, something that we more or less wouldn’t be allowed to have if Cass wasn’t at a work event for the evening. So I am here, trying to buy three steak burritos.
It’s a Wednesday. I’d forgotten about Wednesdays.
The place is wall to wall families. The noise level is monkey house at the zoo during feeding time. Every booth, every table, every flat surface crammed with kids and harried looking parents. Over in the corner, a three-year-old, her face smeared with sour crème, wails the wails of someone who is afraid that this brownie might be her last brownie. A five-year-old punches a seven-year-old over by the drink dispenser over a Minecraft related dispute. It is full on Senor de las Moscas in here but nobody seems to have the conch. One family sits quietly eating, their faces down. I wonder if they are ignoring or immune to everything that is going on around them. Maybe they don’t want to see.
A group of single adults, of which I am one, mill around the area where you pick up your order. We all glance down at our receipts and the order number on them, then up and then back down, like nervous poker players unsure of what our hole cards are. Occasionally the manager calls out a number and we all check again, even though we know the number he called out wasn’t ours. This doesn’t make the waiting any faster.
To their credit, the employees are holding up their end. The kitchen line staff frantically build burrito after burrito, their faces sheened with sweat as they bark at each other in Spanish. In the middle of all the chaos a high school or college girl, I’m getting old and can no longer tell the difference, is as cool as Beyoncé as she takes order after order after order. She smiles a Mona Lisa smile, takes the money and is on to the next one with a Zen like stillness that is in sharp contrast to the end of the world mania that seems to be gripping the rest of us.
I feel like Kurtz at the end of Heart of Darkness and wonder if my acceptance of all of this as normal means I’ve spent too long in the jungle. I’m trying to recall how to say “The horror! The horror!” in Spanish and wrestling to remember if it really just is “El horror! El horror!” when the manager calls a number and I look down and its mine.