By Liz Vitale
Don was pissed.
He had just clocked out for lunch and was headed for the vending machines; he had left his lunch behind at home, on the counter (why did he pick up his phone to check it right before he left? Distractions, damned distractions) and in its place he had been savoring chocolate Zingers. Specifically, the pack of three was on his mind; the sugar high from that delectable little team of chocolate soldiers would keep him alert until closing: Come on, men! We gotta keep this maggot awake! He’s zoning out on the job! MOVE IT MOVE IT MOVE IT!
But there were no Zingers.
He vaguely remembered the old “Zinger Zapper” commercial from the 70s, featuring the Peanuts characters and Snoopy stealing the kids’ treats, in a masked-and-caped disguise. He was barely six or seven then, sitting on the olive shag carpet of his parent’s living room, too close to the furniture-sized television set, when he first saw it.
The Zinger Zapper got your cakes, Donnie.
In place of the Zingers in the vending machine’s innards were packages of cakes he wasn’t familiar with. Tucked behind the coily metal twirly things that sometimes didn’t twirl enough and left your god-forsaken Zinger package hanging by a corner of the cellophane wrapper were a similar plastic-wrapped treat called “Pannas”. They had a general shape of a Twinkie—they were little loaves with rounded tops, and they were pinkish-red. A single thin, squiggly line of white frosting striped the tops of the cakes.
Red. Almost like red velvet cake.
If you squinted at them, they looked a little like tongues.
Don silently cursed the lack of Zingers, rapped his hand sharply on the glass as if the cakes could hear, then less silently he cursed, “Damned new stupid Panna cakes! Who asked for you, anyway?”
Zingers nowhere in sight.
The next four hours being manager at Vista Hardware were going to go veerrry slowly.
Don, thirty-nine,average height and with thinning brown hair grown too long around his bald spot in an arrangement that his younger brother relentlessly called a “skirted eggshell”, sighed so heavily he felt his torso lift, drop and bounce as it settled. Panna cakes it would be. He dug in his pocket for a dollar, inserted it into the bill slot of the machine, and punched in the number of the Panna cakes— a number that his beloved Zingers had long held; B13.
The cakes dropped, and he retrieved them through the slamming metal door chute of the vending machine.
“Did you get those funny pink cakes?” a voice said behind him. It was Debbie, one of the cashiers, on a fifteen-minute break.
“Yeah, I thought I’d try ‘em—the usual snacks I get aren’t in there anymore,” Dan answered, turning to face her. Debbie was older—no one was quite sure of her age—and had a roughness about her; a little wiry, a little rough-hewn, but with spunk, as if she had been beaten down in this life but refused to stay down. Her eyes were always circled with gray and her bleached-blond hair always seemed to need its roots tended to, but she was always quick with a joke, a smile, a funny greeting, or a contraband room-temperature beer from her locker when no one else was looking.
“I wanna taste one, but I don’t want to spend the money…can you break me off a piece of one of those?” Debbie grinned. “Give you a quarter for it.”
“Sure.” The package crinkled as Don opened it. “Don’t worry about the quarter, Deb.”
He took out one of the two spongy little cakes and broke off a third for Debbie. As he handed it to her, he raised his eyebrows and said, “I bet it’s some new food to keep us compliant—dull our minds so we can get through the day without bitching about customers.”
“Nothing can get me through the day without bitching about customers,” Debbie muttered. She crammed it all in her mouth and without chewing it she said, mouth full, “That’s our god-given—HEY, this is GOOD”.
“What’s it taste like?”
“Mmm! Kinda like strawberry shortcake. But a little like cherry pie.” Debbie looked at the machine. “Damn, I gotta get my own pack of those when I go on lunch.”
“Take the rest of this one.” Don handed her the rest of the broken cake. “My treat.”
“Thanks, hon,” she replied without skipping a beat and let him drop it into her hand. She continued on her way down the hall to the break room, where Don knew she would grab her ever-present, always empty Coke can out of the fridge, take it to her locker and pour a little PBR into it, then go out back for a smoke.
Don gazed down at the Pannas cake still in its wrapper. He pushed it halfway out, then took a bite. She was right; it had a strawberry shortcake-cherry pie flavor. And it was good. A cream filling popped out between his teeth and it was tasty too—all smooth cream and no grit like some cream fillings had.
He decided these were a good replacement as he strolled to the break room.
It didn’t take long for word to get around about the new treat in the vending machine; soon the Pannas cakes were all out, and the eleven employees at Vista Hardware waited anxiously for the “vending machine guy” to refill them. They grudgingly ate the candy bars, cinnamon buns and powdered doughnuts the machine had to offer to soothe one’s sweet tooth, but Don and his fellow workers were only biding their time.
At long last…a week and a half after the Pannas cakes ran out, the Vending Machine Guy—a tall,older fellow in coveralls— hauled in a stack of cases on a hand truck and began filling the vending machine outside the break room.
Don was first in line. Standing with his body leaning on the break room wall by the door and his neck and head craned around the door into the hallway, looking a bit like a snake peering into a bird’s nest, he half-good-naturedly said to the man, “Hey, come on with those Pannas cakes..we’re drooling for ‘em out here.”
The man in coveralls,on his knees to fill the lower slots, calmly continued filling the metal rib cage of the vending machine with snacks and gum; goodies and treats both sweet and savory and almost all addictive in their own way. Vending Machine Guy’s hair was very gray; his long face cut through with many lines. He must have been close to seventy.
“Who makes those, anyway?” Don asked, trying to be casual, wondering if he could nick a pack of Pannas cakes from the box. It was on the top of the stack. Vending Machine Guy’s back was facing him. If he came outside the door very quietly…
“Oh, the vending company would know,” Vending Machine Guy said, and handed Don a pack of Pannas cakes. “They showed up as a free sample in one of my orders and I tasted ‘em. I don’t have a sweet tooth so I didn’t like ‘em much. Company wanted me to try ‘em out in some of the machines.” His voice was soft, with a pleasant drawl and a little smoker’s rasp to it. He had probably locked onto cigarettes more than sweets as a vice, Don thought. Which was worse? Smoking can kill you, but so can diabetes…
He just handed me a pack of cakes. Must be free.
Don tore open the wrapper, pulled out a Pannas cake, bit it in half. Oh, the strawberry-cherry-creamy goodness of it all..
The man stood up and for the first time in Vending Machine Guy’s many visits Don noticed that his name patch on his coveralls read, “Frank”.
He had never even noticed his name.
“Be seein’ you next week.” Frank tugged the bill of his trucker’s cap and placed his empty boxes on the hand truck. He wheeled it down the hallway as Don watched.
Don called, “Thanks, Frank!”
Frank waved over his shoulder.
He had never thanked Frank before.
After three months, the Pannas cakes were not only the most popular treat purchased from the vending machine in Vista Hardware, they now had a companion cake in the slot beside them. The new Pannas cakes were the pale green of key lime pie filling. The employees once again could not pinpoint the taste; it was something like lime and a bit like kiwi fruit. These cakes, too, had a white filling that was as smooth as freshly-whipped cream in a fine restaurant.
Debbie preferred the green cakes; she seemed to have even slowed down on her hidden-beer-in-the-locker-that-we all-secretly-know-about-nudge-nudge in favor of having the spongy little cakes on her break.
Lisa, the store’s accountant, had developed a taste for them too, and because she had to sit at a desk all day, her love for Pannas cakes was beginning to show.
“I’ve had to go up a pant size!”she wailed one morning in the breakroom, tugging at the tight waistband of her khakis.
“Same here, babe, same here,” moaned Kerry, another cashier. Kerry stayed a register all day but not on her feet. She preferred a stool to sit on because of her bad knees. “Them things are addictive.”
“My kids like them, too,” Debbie added. “I took some home and they were begging me for more next thing I knew.”
Their conversation broke when Don strode in, triumphantly waving a piece of paper as if it were a captured battle flag. His thin, chestnut-colored hair was blowing up over his bald spot like a toupee that had broken loose. “I just got a fax from corporate,” he crowed. “We got Vista Hardware’s ‘Best Customer Service’ award for the whole southeast!”
“You’re kidding!” Lisa put her hands to the sides of her face. “Oh god, that could mean—“
“Bonuses..oh, sweet bonuses,” Kerry whispered.
“Tell me about it,”Don laughed. “I mean they are pleased as all getout with us. It’s like stuff’s finally going our way around here. I guess you do what they say enough times and it comes back to reward you, but I never thought it could happen to me. Us. Good job,ladies. Good job.”
“Let’s celebrate with some Pannas cakes!” Debbie shouted.
The others chortled. Kerry spoke up first. “Not this early. Let’s wait until lunch to stuff ourselves.”
At closing time, the sun was throwing its last purple rays over the pine trees, and there was a crispness to the air typical of the days when summer is fading into autumn.
The store had had a good day—sales were up, customers were happy. There had been no returns. No registers were short, and nobody was driving up into the parking lot for a last look at wing nuts just as the employees were turning on the neon “closed” sign. Even if they had, Don thought, the mood was so pleasant around the store that he doubted Kerry and Debbie would have refused a latecomer.
Don went to the office at the back of the store to turn off the radio and loudspeaker. The door to the rear hallways and rooms of the store’s administrative area had barely closed klik-klik behind him when he saw Frank, the man who refilled the vending machine, standing by the breakroom door.
“It was time for me to come back,” Frank explained, his drawl soft and casual. “Got some work to do.”
“We– we’re closing the store,” Don said, head tilted slightly. “Everyone is ready to go home.” Before, he would have just told any maintenance person to just pack up, go home, come back tomorrow.
But we’ve won the Best Customer Service Award. I can do better than that.
Don offered, “What do you need to do, Frank? Can I help?” He held out his hands in an I’m ready, gimme something gesture. “Maybe we can get it done together and then we can all get outta here.”
“I hoped you’d say that, son.” Frank casually strolled into the break room and motioned for Don to follow. Curious, Don headed in after him, and stopped just inside the doorway.
The long folding table that the employees used for their breaks and for meetings was covered in a sheet of thick clear plastic; three clean white plastic buckets stood beside it. A cardboard box lay on one end of the table.
“Is there a leak?” Don asked.
“Nope, nope. Just gotta clean up some messy parts.” Frank replied. He produced a box cutter and sliced open the cardboard box. “Oh, here, want to try a new flavor of the Pannas cakes? Have a snack while we work?” He handed Don a foil-wrapped package.
“Sure.” Don leaned forward in anticipation,forgetting anything about cleaning vending machine parts. “What’s the flavor?” He quickly unwrapped the cakes.
“These are special. They call them ‘Sweet Dreams’, and they seem a little more fragile than the other kinds.” Frank headed to a tool bag he had set in a chair and rummaged through it. “Go on, have one, I’ll just be a minute.”
They were red. Not just pink, but a bright, almost nuclear red. They smelled like raspberries. They had the same white frosting on top, but this time in the shape of..
He took a bite. Definitely raspberries, but with a cheesecake’s tart smoothness.
He had bitten off a point of the star.
What was that he had learned in high school about invertebrates in biology class?
A starfish can grow a new arm if it is cut off…
How cruel is that?
Who cuts the arms off of starfish? That’s no way to win Best Customer Service Awards..
The cream filling had the same tartness like cheesecake.
Did they ever anesthetize starfish before they chopped off their arms?
He felt his vision blurring. He saw Frank out of the corner of his eye. He tried to turn toward the taller, older man, but found his body immobile. He heard the door to the breakroom shut. Frank was suddenly everywhere—closing the door and locking it, at his toolbag in the chair, back at the door, taping something over the door’s small square window.
“Frank? I think I need to sit down just a second..”
“Yes you do, son, your color is a bit off.” Frank maneuvered him to the table. Don tried to sit, ended up sprawled on the table. Frank’s voice began to sound like the muted trombone voice of the teacher in the animated Charlie Brown specials: “WAH WURH WAH WAH WUR WAH..”
He imagined Snoopy grabbing the Zingers and running out of the classroom while the teacher droned on, and Charlie Brown exclaiming “Good grief! What’s happening?”
What IS happening?
He felt hands on his face, hands in canvas gloves. “Be still,” Frank said, but it sounded like “WAH WIR.”
He then felt a pressure—not pain, but a pressure on his neck. And a feeling of moisture. Dripping.
Frank held his head firm, and he was holding him facing down.
Don had no inclination to struggle; it was as if his body was not his own. Frank held him so that his throat, slit deftly with the box cutter, bled easily and efficiently into the white plastic bucket beneath.
As the light went out of his eyes, and darkness took him, Don heard:
“These’re the messy parts I have to clean up,” Frank explained softly. “These sweet treats you all love so much…well, it makes you all taste awfully sweet, too.” Once the dripping stopped he took care to put a lid tightly on the bucket and set it aside. He wrote the date in Sharpie marker on the lid. “Those treats also make you easy to handle; especially that last one. Happy stock is easier to handle.”
Frank eased Don’s limp form onto another sheet of plastic on the floor. He had spilled nothing.
“Autumn’s coming, Don,” Frank said to Don’s unspeaking shape as he stepped over to the door, patiently awaiting the other two employees’ eventual arrival. “Autumn’s the time for harvest.”