My mouth was reeling that fateful Saturday afternoon, as if it had just been hit by a Jim Shields fastball. Taste Buds fled like terrified Orcs from avenging Ents. Nerves split and frayed like the rigging on Old Ironsides during battle. And smoke, I fancied, ascended from my ears the same way it does when Jerry finds himself in an uncomfortable situation and reacts according to the laws of cartoon physics.
I had just finished my first bite of a spicy chicken sandwich. Yes, I can handle spicy stuff, thank you very much. It's not like I'm a wimp. Contrary to popular and familial belief, I can take a challenge. In fact, I would readily devour the world's hottest pepper if I wanted to. But I just don't want to. You see, some things are simply outside my comfort zone. I don't feel like eating spicy food. It burns my tongue. It makes my ears smoke. Yeah, I'm a wimp.
Last Saturday I put my foot down. I decided I didn't have to put up with all that capsasin or let my tongue be fried like a potato sliver. I would buy an ice cream sundae to assuage the fires in my mouth and dispel the rainclouds lurking behind my eyelids. With fresh determination, I sauntered over to the restaurant counter and waited. Then I waited a while longer, and a while longer yet. There was something amiss. I looked around for an employee.
The woman in the kitchen was alive—even I could deduce that much by the steady rise and fall of her chest. But she certainly wasn't kicking. In fact, she was hardly breathing. One of her feet slowly rose from the ground, made a leisurely arc through mid-air, and settled a little way ahead. Then the other foot rose placidly to take its place. I plunked down my elbows and watched the spectacle, forgetting for a moment that my tongue was melting behind my lips.
There was no one else in line. Back at the grill, a frantic Mexifornian shot around like Speedy Gonzalez, making and bagging orders for the drive-thru. At the pay window sat a third employee, more dilatory than the first, who moved with a lethargy reminiscent of cold molasses. She was folding the Mexifornian's bags shut, gradually extending them toward impatient and outstretched hands, and counting out change with the enthusiasm of an aquarium snail. The Slow Poke I had observed first obviously noticed the action at the pay window, because she modified the path of her arduous trail to lend a hand to Molasses. Despite all the wisdom that had been instilled in me over the decades, I stared. It was mesmerizing.
Then my tongue reminded me what I was supposed to be doing, and I shook myself awake. Was there balm in Gilead? I needed relief on the double. Speedy had his hands full. Molasses was stuck to an earphone and speaker. Slow Poke was my only hope. "Um, excuse me" I muttered. She didn't move. Or did she? It was hard to tell. "Excuse me," I spoke up louder. Her head began to turn, followed by her shoulders, her torso, and finally her legs. She ambled over to the register.
I sighed in relief and was just opening my afflicted mouth to order when, in a twist of fate as excruciating as it was unexpected, she began to smile. I tried to stop her. I used English, Latin, Esperanto, and three dialects of sign language to get across to her that I didn't need the smile, that all I needed was a cup of ice cream, that I would pay extra, that I would slip her a few bills under the table. It was no use. The lips moved inexorably onward, upward, seeming as they climbed to shout "excelsior" in their enthusiasm. And yes, there was enthusiasm in that smile. It was a deep, full, cordial smile that evinced every bit of the meticulous effort and precious time employed in its creation.
I winced and summoned patience. As the smile progressed, more customers began to line up behind me. When the lips had waxed into a crescent, the cheeks began to glow. Then the eyelids complacently began to join in. I was desperate. Turning to the crowd behind me, I offered a silent plea. Couldn't someone do something? But I was met by a sea of hypnotically glazed eyes and slack jaws. My mouth was feeling quite OK now, and in answer to a low rumbling in my stomach, I glanced longingly toward my chicken sandwich. Horrors! Speedy was wiping off tables and I realized in a flash that the sandwich was in his path. My chicken sandwich. My spicy delicacy. I broke from the line and ran for it. I leaped over several chairs and shouted a warning, but arrived just as Speedy swept my lunch into a trash can. I staggered up, and a tear brimmed over my eyes unto my cheek. Then I looked at the line. Even had it been moving, there were too many people to wait out.
I would be eating somewhere else today, I concluded as I trudged out to my car. Somewhere where slow motion was merely a cinematic effect.