I met my first ex-con when I was 16.
I had just gotten my first non-babysitting job at a fast-food chain a few blocks from my house in Houston, Tx. He worked the kitchen while I was on the front register and drive-thru. I'll call him Al since he reminded me so much of Al Pacino in "Frankie and Johnny". He had a slight New York accent, a gravelly voice, drove a navy blue truck and he was fascinating.
My first day, I didn't even notice him. He was quiet, cooking up burgers, while I was getting the finer points of French frying potatoes.
The next day, as I was being trained on the registers, my trainer decided to enlighten me about Al. While he went into the walk-in freezer getting some more patties, she looked around the empty diner then motioned me to come closer to her. I didn't want to 'cause she had bad breath, but she was my supervisor, so I leaned towards her.
"Now I don't want you to get scared or nothin', but the cook we have is an ex-con." She nodded her head several times opening her already bugged out eyes wider.
I waited for her to continue, but she just stared at me. I leaned back. "Um, okay. Thanks for the heads up." She again nodded sagely then put a finger to her lips as we heard banging around in the kitchen. We returned to my training and I forgot her odd statement.
It was a few weeks later before Al and I worked the same shift again. I'd been trained on drive-thru just the day before and my manager had, in her infinite wisdom, scheduled me to run it by myself on a Saturday. About half an hour before the dinner rush as I was clocking in, the girl who was on the front register's shift ended and she left. There were supposed to be two other employees coming on, but neither had shown up yet. Fortunately, the dining area was deserted and usually stayed that way for the first half hour of the dinner rush. My headset crackled a hello as I put it on. Thinking it was a customer I stumbled through the spiel and asked to take the person's order. A sexy chuckle met my ear.
"It's okay sweetness. I was just making sure you could hear me." I flipped around from where I was standing by the drive-thru window and saw the deepest brown eyes staring at me over by the grill. Al had a cocky grin that flushed my cheeks red. "What's your name, sweetness?"
"Ninian," I mumbled, looking away from him. He mouthed my name, licked his lips and nodded.
Joe, a cook I'd worked with a few times, came in. He nodded at me then wandered over to Al and began talking to him. I watched them, curious. I'd never heard Joe talk much, but he seemed to have a whole lot to say to Al. Al pulled his mic away from his mouth so I couldn't eves drop on their conversation. A car pulled up, taking my attention away from them.
"Have a nice day!" I waved to the older woman in the large Buick as she drove off.
"So here's the deal, sweetness," Al's voice was again in my ear. I turned from the window and my body jolted, shocked to find him practically leaning on me. He stood up, suppressing a grin and took a step back. "Did I startle you?"
"No... I mean, yes. I wasn't expecting you to be standing right there since I'd heard you over the headset." My fingers pinched the bottom edge of my shirt and my toes fidgeted in my shoes. He moved back a bit more.
"Sorry. Anyhow, Joe told me that Ala, who was supposed to be on register, called in sick and Tom, the shift supervisor, was running late as usual. So Joe's cool with taking over the grill and I'm good with the drive-thru if you're okay with running the register and fries." Without picking up his feet, he moved a bit closer. "Okay?" I nodded, brushing past him as I scurried over to the register where two customers were waiting. As I took their orders, I could feel his eyes on me.
That evening, as we were closing up the store, Joe, Al and Tom were all smoking in the back going over the craziness of the day. I was mopping the dining area and listening, chiming in with one or two of my own chaotic anecdotes. Joe stepped out of the kitchen, placed a large hand on my shoulder and grinned at me. It might have been due to the darkness of his skin's, but he had the whitest teeth I'd ever seen.
"Nin, you're alright." He winked, then whispered. "Don't let Al's rough past fool ya, he's really a great guy. Take care now." He walked out the door as I said goodbye and locked the door behind him.
"Well, I've got to lock myself in the office and finish up some paper work." Tim sighed, stepping behind the registers and collecting the money. He looked up at me. "You okay to get home, kid?"
I nodded. "I've got my bike."
His eyes narrowed. "Call me old fashioned but I don't like the idea of a girl peddlin' home in the dark." He called back over his shoulder. "Hey Al, you've got your truck, right?"
"You think you could give Ninian and her bike a ride home?"
I shook my head. "It's really not necessary. I'm only a few blocks away and I prefer to go home by myself."
Al came wandering up from the back. "It's no problem. We can toss your bike in the back. I do it all the time with Zack."
I felt myself blinking fast. "Listen, I appreciate the offer, but I wouldn't feel comfortable. I don't mean any offense, but I'm not about to get into the cab of a truck with some guy I barely know. Call me paranoid, but I'd feel safer on my bike."
Tom pursed his lips then muttered, sorry, before rushing off into the office and locking the door.
I sighed, feeling like an asshole and leaned against the wall. "Seriously, I meant no offense."
Al grinned. "No offense taken. It's refreshing to meet a girl who speaks her mind. I applaud you!" He clapped and I blushed. "Seriously. I get so sick of these southern belle types who'll be so nice to your face then bitches behind your back. If you're uncomfortable with someone or with a situation, say something for Christ sake!" He shook his head then stared hard at me. "Sweetness, promise me this. Promise me, that if I do or say anything that you're not comfortable with, you'll tell me, okay?"
Biting my lower lip, I nodded. "Okay. Don't call me sweetness. And you have to promise me the same. Okay?"
His grin grew even bigger. "Done and done!" He extended his hand. "Shall we shake on it?"
Pushing myself off the wall, I took his hand. It was warm and calloused and his handshake was firm. I felt a tingle run through me, so I quickly took my hand away.
He absently rubbed his hand as he asked, "would it be alright if I walked out with you?"
I nodded, not trusting my voice to answer.
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