I can’t breathe. Three words that I’ve been hearing, again and again, this year. I heard them in videos that I watched a million times even though I know I shouldn’t have. I heard them in chants by people marching through the streets, right before those people were shot at. I heard them repeated in mocking voices by men in blue. Today I hear them spoken by my manager who refuses to wear a mask.
“It traps CO2, I can’t breathe,” she says, her mask hanging from her neck.
I want to yell at her, remind her that we’re in the middle of a pandemic, remind her that lives are at stake. But I don’t. I just sigh and pour myself a cup of coffee. It burns my tongue as I drink it and I curse, spilling a bit down my chin. I wipe my face with a napkin, throw it in the trash can, and pull my mask back up.
I unlock the front door of the restaurant and step outside, double-checking for any trash by the doorway before we open. I pick up a plastic mask, haphazardly thrown on the ground, and toss it in a trashcan. ACAB has been graffitied on the trash can; half the buildings on the street are covered in spray-painted protest slogans, created after dark during the chaos that rocked the city the night prior.
I see flyers taped to the windows as I walk back to work. One is a flyer for a drive-in movie theater showing classic films, another a flyer for a lost dog. The biggest one is a plastic sign corporate sent us and my manager made me hang, proudly stating that we’ve reopened at full capacity.
As I open the door, I stop and glance over my shoulder at the sky. It is orange. Not the brilliant orange of a sunset, the muddy orange of death. It is orange smog that turns the sky into an endless desert, a product of the wildfires burning outside the city.
The world is burning, and I can smell the smoke as it drifts in on the wind.
My manager is at the prep table in the back of the kitchen, chopping tomatoes. She’s an old woman, seventy maybe, with hair the color of newspaper and skin covered in liver spots. She coughs into her hand and wipes the gunk off on her shirt before returning to work. I don’t say anything.
A small tv sits on the prep table, showing an image of a cable news host. The way he talks is irritating, saying a thousand things every ten seconds, too quick for you to think about if what he says is factual. Right now, he’s talking about the anarchists destroying our cities, coming for your family. Behind him is a photo of a man holding a large gun, his face covered by a red bandana, standing in front of a burning police car.
No mention is made of the cause of the riots, none of the actions of the police, none of the armies of peaceful men and women I have seen. Only the violence. Only the things that make people afraid. He tells his viewers that the world will end if they don’t do something about it. And then it cuts to a commercial for a company that sells gold.
I hand a customer a paper bag of food, my face covered by a mask and my hands covered by plastic gloves. The man snatches the bag from my hand and drives away. A few minutes later, his car rushes through the drive-through again. I ask him what’s wrong and he throws his soda in my face.
“I asked for barbecue sauce with this, how am I supposed to eat my chicken fingers without barbeque sauce?” he screams.
I tell him I’m sorry, say I can go grab him some, and he asks to talk to my manager. He screams at her too. She refunds his meal and he drives away before I can give him his sauce.
I remember back in March, when all this began, the restaurant shut down for an entire week. Then we opened up the drive-through again. A month later, we reopened for dine-in again. At first, there were restrictions. Limits on the number of people allowed in the restaurant, not letting people get their own drinks, sanitizing the tables after each customer. All of those restrictions were removed after two weeks because customers complained.
When this all started, we put lines of blue painter’s tape on the ground, six feet apart, telling people where to stand. The tape is still there, but people ignore it. They stand back to back, crowded like sardines, eager to get up to the counter. None of them wear masks.
One small change has remained, I suppose. We used to have containers of loose plastic silverware sitting on the counter for people to reach in and grab from. Now we wrap them. I spend half of my time standing behind the counter, wrapping plastic forks and spoons in napkins. I place them gently into a box by the register, so I can hand them to customers with their food.
A customer reaches in, pulling out a set of silverware. I pull the box back, out of his reach. The next customer reaches over the register to grab his silverware.
We have a big bottle of hand sanitizer sitting by the counter for customers to use. I don’t know where my manager got it, but it smells awful, like a mix between vodka and rotten eggs. The pump is broken, and it shoots the sanitizer out with enough force that it lands on the floor, three feet from the table.
A little old lady comes in, wearing a mask. Her son is with her. He doesn’t wear one. The old woman uses the sanitizer on her hands. She asks her son if he’d like to wash his hands before he eats.
He coughs a dry, hacking cough, into his palm and says no.
A man in a red hat comes in and scoffs at me for wearing a mask. “You know that shit’s not real,” he says. I nod and ring up his total.
He rants to me about how it’s a conspiracy to make the president look bad, how the deaths aren’t real, how this is an excuse for a governmental takeover, how I’m just a sheep doing whatever the government says. I just nod.
He calls me a Nazi, tells me how making people wear masks is just like making people wear gold stars, and that really pisses me off. I slam his silverware down in front of him and tell him to have a nice day.
The lunch rush hits us like a tidal wave. An endless stream of customers pours through our doors and through our drive-through. I run between the window and the counter fifty times, taking orders and giving customers their food as fast as possible. I barely have time to think, the line is so long.
Things have gotten worse, since the pandemic started. The owner cut half of the staff. There’s supposed to be two, or even three people here, handling the counter and the window. Today there’s just me. My manager tries to help, the best she can, but it isn’t enough. It just isn’t enough.
I hand a customer her drink, quickly, and accidentally drop it on the floor. I shout that I’m sorry and punch my counter. My knuckles hurt, but I don’t care.
I check my phone when I go on break. There’s a message from my old therapist, checking in to see if I’m okay and encouraging me to schedule another appointment. I don’t call her back.
I watch the videos again. I know I shouldn’t, I know what they do to me. But I have to watch them, because if I don’t then I’m like my manager, hiding from the horrors of the world so I don’t have to feel bad about it. I’m hiding in Plato’s cave because the shadows are comforting.
They’re horrible, all of them. I watch a police car drive through a crowd of people. I watch a woman get shot at for filming the police from her porch. I watch a man get shot in the head and fall over like a ragdoll. I watch two men with badges and rip an old man from his wheelchair and kick him in the ribs. I watch a police dog sink its teeth into a man’s leg and then watch as the police arrest the man for animal abuse. And I know that none of these men will go to jail, and it makes me want to scream.
Inevitably, I reach the videos of people dying. It’s funny, almost, how easy it is to find them. I remember, when the internet was young and I was younger, there was a webpage called WatchPeopleDie. I went there once, when I was in Junior High. I saw a video of a man stepping into traffic and getting run over by a truck. Back then, the video terrified me. It gave me nightmares.
WatchPeopleDie has been dead for years, but videos of death are still around. I’ve watched them till my eyes bled. I think back to my youth, to that video of the man getting run over, and I know that it wouldn’t even phase me now. I’ve grown numb to all of it.
I watch the most relevant video, a video of a police stop that happened two days prior, only three blocks away. A cop car pulls over a man in a nicer car. They say his tail-light is broken, and ask to see his registration. When he reaches for the glovebox, they draw their guns and rip him from the car, slamming him on the ground.
Two more cops show up. One holds the man to the ground. Another strikes the man in the head with his baton. I hear, through the audio half masked by wind, as the man begs for mercy. I hear one of the cops tell him to shut up.
Then, it ends. The man shoves off the cop holding him down. Gunshots. Ten of them. I watch a man die. I’ve seen this man die a dozen times now. At first, it made me angry. Now, it just makes me feel empty.
The video was taken by a teenager sitting in a nearby cafe and uploaded online. It’s a good thing he was there to film it, because all four police body cams mysteriously stopped working right before the man died.
I think about the fourth cop. The first cop held the man down, the second beat him, the third shot him. And the fourth watched. He just stood there and watched as his friends killed an innocent man.
And he did nothing.
Three people walk in together, wearing cloth masks. They ask me if masks are necessary. I say no, but-
Before I can finish my sentence they already have their masks off.
Throughout the day, I catch bits and pieces of the news as I pass through the kitchen. Not real news, legally speaking, but something that calls itself news. I try to avoid watching cable news, it just makes me angry.
I see a story about the wildfires, fought by men imprisoned by drug charges working for pennies. A pundit complains that reducing sentences to keep people from getting sick would create a labor shortage. I think of an interview I read, about how fire departments refuse to hire ex-cons, and think about how America is broken.
I see a story about how the richest men in the world have gained hundreds of billions in the last few months and a story about the stock market having the best week in decades. At the same time, I see stories about skyrocketed unemployment and millions of people being evicted from their homes.
I see another story about cities burning to the ground. They show images of smashed windows, graffitied slogans, and a photo of a man holding a large gun, his face covered by a red bandana, standing in front of a large crowd. They interview a senator and he announces plans to register Antifa as a terrorist. How he can call an ideology, rather than a specific group, a terrorist organization, is not questioned. Nor is the fact that he does not mention any attack committed by this non-organization, or the fact that he uses the terms Antifa and activist interchangeably as he rambles.
I see an interview with the president, where he is asked if he will accept the results of the election. He says he’ll ignore the election if he loses, and the pundits laugh this off as another hilarious joke. Like how they laughed off him telling people to inject themselves with bleach. Like the laughed off the time he bragged about getting away with sexual assault because he’s rich.
I see a story about the man killed by the police. The hosts dig through his past, looking for any misdemeanor to justify his death. They mention that he shoplifted once, in high school, and lambast the fact that so many people are martyring a man who was no angel. No mention is made of the fact that it happened years ago, or that the punishment for shoplifting isn’t supposed to be death, or that cops are supposed to arrest people and send them to jail to await trial, not execute them on the street.
One of my friends, a Latina girl no older than 18, tells me she heard that the government is sending in federal officers and the national guard, to help protect the city. She whispers this to me, like it’s a terrifying secret and not something the president bragged about.
She tells me that she has friends in other cities where federal officers were sent. A friend of hers was picked up off the street by an unmarked van, and that she worries that she’ll never see him again. I tell her that he’ll probably be fine, and she laughs at this. Not a laugh of humor, a laugh of fear.
She tells me about how, three weeks ago, she went to school. When she returned, her entire neighborhood was gone, arrested by ICE on suspicion of not being legal immigrants. The kids at her school returned to a ghost town. Her family was gone. And they were here legally.
She says she’s talked to her mother only once since then, and that her parents are in detention facilities awaiting trial. She says she worries about her mother a lot. She’s heard rumors, terrifying rumors. Stories of cramped cells and rotten food. Stories of rapes by guards, left uninvestigated. Stories of disease spreading like wildfire. Stories of forced sterilizations, government doctors cutting women open and removing their uteruses.
I give her a hug. I tell her that everything’s going to be okay as she cries into my shoulder. And I know that it’s a lie, but I say it anyway.
As I’m standing at the register, enjoying the calmness on the post-lunch-rush peace, a spider crawls across the counter. I move my hand to squash it, then stop. I don’t touch it. The spider crawls away.
I first hear the news from my manager’s TV. Breaking news, hot of the press. The DA announces that the four policemen will not be charged. That the officers involved did nothing wrong.
Tonight will be hell. It will be chaos. The people will take to the streets and destroy everything in their paths. And I do not hate them for that. Why follow the law, when the government has declared the law to be meaningless?
I wonder what went through the mind of the District Attorney. He must know, the consequences his decision will bring. He cannot be blind to the violence that he will trigger through his refusal to do his job. He knows people will be hurt, and that everything that happens can be directly traced back to this choice. The choice to legalize murder. The choice to tell the world that it’s okay to kill, as long as you’re killing a black person. The choice to protect four murderers by damning thousands of innocents.
I google his address and find it in less than a minute. Part of me wants to go there with a box of matchsticks and a gallon of gasoline, to ensure that, if the city shall burn, the homes of the men responsible will burn with it. Another part of me is terrified that the idea even crossed my mind.
Customers cough. They cough a lot. And it terrifies me. Every time I hear someone cough, I tense up. I think, this is it, this is what gets the restaurant shut down. This is what makes me go without a paycheck for weeks. This is what scars my lungs. This is what makes me murder everyone I care about.
And it never happens. The shoe never drops. No one ever gets sick, at least no one in the restaurant. Millions of Americans are infected, two hundred thousand are dead, but the virus never reaches me. I know it will, but it hasn’t happened. Not yet.
Have you ever felt like you were insane? Because I’ve been feeling like that a lot lately. I worry that the man in the red hat is the sane one, and I’m the crazy one. That all this isn’t real, that the armies of customers that walk through without masks are normal people and I’m the freak, that I’m blowing everything out of proportion.
If the whole world says that two plus two equals five, isn’t it madness to think it equals four?
I pass by my manager’s TV and I hear the pundits talk about the chaos and looting in the cities. I glance at the screen and see an image of a man holding a large gun, his face covered by a red bandana, standing in front of a smashed store window. The same image I’ve seen photoshops a dozen times and presented as reality by people who want me to be afraid.
“God, it’s hot,” my manager says, staring at the ceiling fan. It broke a week ago. More accurately, I broke it, but I claim that it just broke.
I poke a straw under my mask and sip some ice water. I wipe beads of sweat from my forehead and spend a minute wondering if I need to wash my hands now. I wash them anyway to be safe.
By now, my manager has started wearing her mask. Kinda. She pulls it over her mouth, at least. But not her nose. It’s better than nothing, I guess.
“God, it’s hot,” she repeats.
“You said that.”
“It’s still true,” she says. “It’s the damn masks, can’t breathe with them on.”
She isn’t wrong, I suppose. My face feels like it has been stuck in an oven. The crappy plastic gloves we wear stick to your hands and, after a few minutes of wearing them, create so much sweat you can barely take them off.
But I still wear a mask. Because I have to. Not because of company policy, half the employees in the restaurant ignore it. Because I hate myself. Because I can’t live with the idea of killing someone.
And maybe it’s performative. Maybe I’m doing it so I can feel superior. Fuck if I know. But I know that I have to keep wearing a mask.
Two dozen customers come in around five. Too many for me to remember each of them. But I remember this one. I will remember him until the day I die. He wears a hat covered in stars and bars and a shirt emblazoned with a black and blue American flag. He has a short, messy beard and dark bags under his eyes. He smiles a toothy grin as he orders his food. I don’t notice these things at the time, only in hindsight as I look back.
The thing I notice is the gun. An AR-15 strapped to his back, covered in camouflage paint with the words “YOU’RE FUCKED” carved into the barrel. It’s an open carry state, but the gun still scares me.
He pays with his food, tells me to keep the change, and leaves the restaurant. The whole interaction takes less than a minute. Two hours later, I hear the gunshots.
I find out, later, after the dust has cleared, that the man with the gun killed two men in cold blood. I hate myself, for not stopping him. Part of me wishes I had called the police. Part of me doubts that the police would have stopped him.
I think about cop number four again. The bystander. The one who watched as his friends killed a man. I wonder what went through his head. I wonder if he wanted to do something, wanted to save that man. He could have, easily. He had a gun. He didn’t. But he could have.
I wonder if he’s racked by guilt. If he stays awake at night, tossing and turning, thinking about what could have been. Thinking about what he should have done differently.
I wonder if he’s jealous, if he envies his fellow officers for having the nerve to draw their guns. If he sees them, with their bent badges and their smoking guns, and wishes he was like them.
I wonder if he even cares at all.
They charge into the restaurant, a man and a woman, both clad in black. The man’s face is covered in blood. The man is barely conscious, the woman supporting him with her shoulder. She screams for us to call for an ambulance.
As my manager dials the phone, the woman sets the man down on a table. A customer yells that this is a place of business and my coworker tells him to shut the fuck up. I rush over to the injured man, carrying with me the first aid kit we keep in the kitchen.
The woman says that she’s a nurse and pops the kit open. She presses down on the man’s face, applying pressure. “I wasn’t trained for this,” she says, her voice cracking.
I look at the man. His face is swollen and blood gushes from his eye. The eyeball itself is crushed, like a grape that has been stepped on.
“I’m not a rioter,” he mumbles, barely conscious. “I’m a reporter. I’m a reporter.”
We let the nurse sit in the restaurant after the paramedics take her friend away. She doesn’t want to go back on the street again. I grab a wet rag and clean the table, slowly clearing away the blood.
“We were peaceful,” she says, staring into a cup of coffee. “Hundreds of us. Thousands, even, marching in solidarity. And we were peaceful. Then they showed up.”
“Who?” I ask, even though I already know the answer.
“Who the fuck do you think? The cops. Men dressed in soldiers, driving through our streets in tanks. They showed up and they fired at us. They beat us. They ran us over. We tried to run away, but they blocked the streets and cornered us.”
“And then a few of us fight back, try to defend ourselves. That’s what they want. That way, they can call it a riot. That way, everything they do is justified. They can go on TV and talk to suburban white women about the lawlessness, and how they’re just keeping the order. No one cares that they fire first, no one cares that they commit most of the violence. No one fucking cares.”
“My friend, the guy they shot in the face, he didn’t do anything wrong. All he did was film them. And they shot him. They blinded him. Because he filmed them,” she says. “Fucking fascists.”
“I’m sorry,” I say.
“You know that shooter guy? I saw them talking to him, whispering things to him, before the gunshots. I think they told him to do what he did, because they couldn’t. I think they told him to murder us,” she says. “Because it isn’t about the law, and it isn’t about peace, it’s about power. We questioned them, we called them out, we stood up to them, and they hate that. They want us to be afraid of them, for them to be able to kill for shits and giggles and get promoted for it. And we said no, so they decided to make us pay. They want us to fear them, they want to beat us into submission so they can keep lynching black people without question.”
“But that isn’t going to happen. It will never happen. Every time they run us over, every time they beat us, every time they imprison journalists or blind us or gas us like we’re fucking insects, our resolve gets stronger. The world is going to change.”
My manager collapses in a chair and stays there, panting. “This stress is going to kill me,” she mutters. “Can’t have that. I have to work in the morning.
She doesn’t talk much, about her personal life. I’m not sure if she has a personal life, to be honest. She’s here every day, from open to close, working. Always working. And she hates it, she complains constantly, but she never quits.
All I know about her past is tidbits, minor details gleaned from offhand comments. She isn’t married, at least not anymore, and doesn’t have any kids. She’s been here for forty years and plans to work here until the day she dies. I asked her once if she’d ever retire. She told me no, the restaurant would fall apart without her.
I break down at 7:47. It’s been building inside me, all day, the rage. Like a mineshaft full of flammable gas, the canary dead, waiting for a spark. And I get the spark when I pass my manager’s TV one more time.
Her favorite pundit is on again, talking about the shooter. About the guy who gunned down two unarmed protesters while the police watched. And what he says, it’s fucking vile.
“The chaos that is sweeping this country has reached its inevitable conclusion. Three people were shot, two of them have died,” he says. “This happened because the police have treated these rioters with kid gloves. Our cities have descended into anarchy because the authorities abandoned the people. Are we really surprised that looting and arson accelerated to murder? How shocked are we that patriots with rifles decided they had to maintain order when no one else would?”
I pick up the TV and smash it on the ground. I pray that the pundit gets hit by a car. And then the bell rings and I run back to the counter to help a customer. He’s an old man with a white beard and a red hat. And he isn’t wearing a mask, because of course he isn’t.
“What can I get you,” I say quickly.
“What?” he says.
“What can I get you?” I shout.
He says his order and I type it into the machine. I make a mistake, punch my counter, and restart the transaction. By now, a small line has formed behind the old man. I take his money, throw him back his change, and slam his silverware down on the counter.
“I’d think you’d be a little more respectful, considering the fact that I pay your salary,” the old man says.
“You know, that’s what’s wrong with this world. Kids like you who don’t respect anything. Don’t respect the customer, don’t respect the police, don’t respect the flag-”
“Have a nice day, sir,” I say.
“Let me talk to your manager,” he says, arms crossed.
“What?” I ask.
“Get your manager, now.”
I punch the counter again. “No,” I say.
“Sit down, and eat your food.”
“You want to take this outside?”
“Sit down and eat your goddamn food!” I shout.
The restaurant goes silent. Everyone stares at me. My manager limps up to the counter. “Take a walk,” she says.
“I’m fine,” I say.
“Take a walk,” she repeats.
As I walk away from the counter, I tear off my mask and throw it on the floor.
I sit on the hood of my car, staring at the sky. I see no stars behind the smog. I take a deep breath.
“You dropped this,” my friend says as she tosses me my mask. I sigh and put it back on. “You okay.”
“I’m fine,” I say.
“You sure? Because-”
“I said I’m fine,” I snap. “Sorry. That was mean. You didn’t deserve that.”
“It’s okay, dude. What’s eating you?”
I sigh. “It’s been an awful year,” I say. “2020, the nightmare that just won’t end! We’ve got a pandemic that’s killed, fuck I don’t even know how many we’re at, we’ve got rampant police brutality, millions of people being thrown out on the streets, a president who’s about to commit a coup, half the nation is burning down, we’re at the beginning of a goddamn holocaust-”
“It’s been a shitty year.”
“And no one cares. Nobody cares.”
“No, they don’t! If they cared, they’d wear masks. And they don’t. Because they can’t be bothered to mildly inconvenience themselves, even if it could save hundreds of lives. And don’t get me started on the fucking police.”
“You’re wearing a mask, though.”
“But I’m just one person.”
“But it isn’t just one person. Look at what we see in the streets, millions of people risking their lives to peacefully fight for their rights. We aren’t alone. And, sure, our customers suck, but we’re a shitty restaurant that attracts the worst of humanity. Don’t write the world off because some of our customers are stupid.”
“It’s not stupidity. Stupidity frees them from blame. It’s ignorance in a world where every book ever written is in the palm of your hand. It’s a choice, to look away from the car crash and pretend it didn’t happen. They don’t believe that the pandemic is real, they don’t believe that racism is alive, they don’t believe that fucking global warming is going to kill our children. Because acknowledging reality is scary. It forces you to live in a world that is broken. So they pretend the world is fine. They’re hiding in Plato’s cave, staring at shadows because the trees scare them. They’re like infants, unable to comprehend that things still exist when they leave your sight. Except they’re choosing to be infants. Because they’re scared, and they’d rather have a million innocent people die than be afraid.”
I slam my fist on the hood of the car. “I feel like I’m losing my damn mind,” I say. “The world is ending and ninety percent of the country doesn’t care. And here I am, having a fucking breakdown, like I’m the crazy one.”
“You aren’t crazy,” my friend. “Although, it might be good for you to talk to someone-”
“I’m not crazy.”
“I didn’t say that-”
“I don’t need therapy, okay? Why would I need therapy? I’m not the one getting shot at, I’m not the one with a dozen family members killed by a plague, I’m not the one who’s homeless in a nation with millions of empty homes. I’m fine.”
“I don’t think you are.”
I slam my fist on the hood of the car again. “I don’t need therapy!” I shout. “I’m not crazy anymore. I am not broken!”
I look in my friend’s eyes and see fear. I slowly pull my hand away from the hood of the car and place it in my lap. “Okay, maybe I’m not okay,” I whisper.
“There’s no shame in not being okay,” my friend says.
“I know, I know. But what am I supposed to do? Walk into my therapist’s office and say, hey, what’s up, I’m holding on by a thread because I can’t stop watching videos of cops killing black people?”
I lean back and sigh. “I don’t know what to do, to be honest,” I say. “I feel so helpless. And I’m angry. I’m always so goddamn angry. At everything. At the world, at people, at myself. And it’s changing me, I’m becoming a different person. I’m becoming vindictive.”
“What do you mean?”
“The other day, I saw a headline about a politician. About an older guy, bit of an asshole, he said this pandemic thing wasn’t a big deal back in April. I saw a headline about him dying, and I laughed,” I say. “What the fuck is wrong with me? I don’t sleep anymore, I just lie in bed, reading about people dying, fantasizing about hurting those responsible. And I’d never do it, I’m too much of a coward. But I think about it, constantly. I’m being pushed down a dark path and I’m scared of where it leads.”
When I go back into the restaurant, she’s sitting in the back. Her mask lies at her feet and her skin is pale. Sweat drips down her forehead. “It’s so hot in here,” she mumbles.
“I’m so sorry about earlier,” I say. “I lost my temper and handled things poorly. It won’t happen ever again-”
“Do you think that you’re the first person to ever be angry? The first person to get mad at the world?” she wheezes. “The world sucks, life is cruel, and it will never get better. That’s reality. It’s awful, but that’s no excuse to be an asshole. You just have to keep going, day after day, and pray that it gets better.”
“What if it doesn’t?”
“It won’t. But wallowing in despair over it only makes you miserable,” she says. “Get back to work. The owner will be in tomorrow to talk to you. Personally, I hope you get to keep your job. You’re a good kid.”
Those are the last words she ever speaks to me. When I go back to clock out at the end of my shift, I find her lying on the ground, a statue. I check her pulse, even though I know I won’t find it. After calling an ambulance, I scrub my hands until they bleed.
That night, as I lie in bed, staring at the ceiling, I think of the wildfires raging outside the city. I imagine them spreading, consuming everything in their path, turning the world to ash so a new world can be built on the remains. I dream of fire.