Our Greatest Product
“Hola, welcome to Burrito Cantina, how can I make your day muy bueno?” Ramon says, as instructed by Corporate (a fact he really wishes he could tell people). Finals week at the local university has arrived – busy for students, busier for the people who have to serve them. They are stressed and crave sustenance. It is the first time any Burrito Cantina employee has ever manned the finals week lunch rush alone. If Ramon is going to do this by himself, he will need to be excellent. He is excellent. Ramon’s got the best hands in the game.
“Can I have a burrito,” the customer in front of him answers. Ramon slaps a tortilla on the press. It sizzles. “With white rice,” Scoop. “Black beans,” Plop. “Chicken,” Squish. Ramon’s hands glide above the counter, picking up and placing ingredients in a seamless and precisely coded sequence.
He could do this with his eyes closed.
“And just a tiny bit of lime juice?” Squeeze. “…is that all I get?” Ramon grabs another wedge. Squeeze. “I don’t mean to be difficult….” Another wedge. Squeeze. Mental eye-twitch. Anything for the customer.
The customer says that will be all. “But!” They punctuate, “Last time I came here, the burrito was rolled up all loose. Can you, like, not do that this time?”
Ramon nods. “I got you.” He folds the back lip of the tortilla forward over the filling, and folds the left and right sides inward to form two right angles. He remembers a scene from a training video he watched during Orientation, a grainy close-up of two gloved hands and a deep, disembodied voice, declaring:
The Rolling of the Burrito is crucial in forming the sacred bond between customer and creator. Too loose, and it falls apart. Too tight, and you tear it into pieces. And that’s just our reputation! The burrito, too, might get ruined.
He delicately tucks and tightens the tortilla. Roll, tuck, roll, tuck. It’s a simple choreography but it requires enormous finger strength and control. He completes the ritual by covering the tight, fat burrito in shimmering foil. It’s some of his best work. The customer hardly notices. They pay for their meal and leave.
Ramon glances at the line of customers, now snaking out of the door. The store buzzes with noise. Impatient toe-tapping, disgruntled chatter. Ramon recognizes most of the patrons — old high school classmates. He feels them recognizing him back and unclips his nametag. One of them is next in line, wearing a white hockey jersey, salmon-colored chino shorts, and hiking sandals. Perfectly dressed for all occasions at once. Kyle. Kyler. Kayden? His name escapes Ramon but the general look of judgment is familiar. “Is there really only one person working behind the counter? Some of us have exams,” Kyle/Kyler/Kayden says to a friend. Must be nice.
Ramon’s brow glistens with sweat. He reminds himself of the Burrito Cantina motto:
Here, we don’t serve fast food. We serve fastest food.
He rushes to the other end of the counter to receive Kyle/Kyler/Kayden, who reaches over the glass partition to point out each request. Ramon imagines swatting away the dusty fingernails hanging in front of him, then swats away the thought.
“Yeah, can I have a burrito? Rice. Steak. Double steak. No vegetables, thanks.” Ramon’s swift hands pull the order together.
He really could do this with his eyes closed.
“Are you out of limes? I want lime juice.” Kyle/Kyler/Kayden asks, pointing at an empty bucket. Ramon realizes they are, indeed, out of limes.
Ramon waves his arms and shouts to the crowd through cupped hands, “Everyone! I am going to the kitchen. I’ll be back in a second.” The entire store groans. They could start a riot if they wanted to – Ramon has seen them tear up Main Street after a big basketball game against a rival university, climbing on top of cars and lighting garbage cans on fire. And that was after a game they won.
On his way to the back room, he hears someone mutter under their breath.
People always said that word when they talked about Ramon. His teachers, any time he got detention. Nosy classmates, that one time he got pulled over and the police found weed in his car. When Ramon’s mom heard that her son wasn’t going to graduate high school, she said it, too: “Well, that’s just typical Ramon.” That one bothered him. Being Ramon isn’t what kept him from graduating. Being very bad at math kept him from graduating. To Ramon, these are two different ideas. To everybody else, his failures are part of him. But he is made of successes, too. He is sure of it.
It’s quiet in the kitchen, away from all the madness. Ramon grabs a knife and a bucket of limes from the fridge. He takes a deep breath. He can do this, he affirms.
He can do it with his eyes closed.
So he does. With the chatter of the store and the visual stimuli gone, he is calm. He fumbles around for a lime and shoves the weight of his knife into it, until he feels the resistance and clack of the cutting board. He quarters the half. Eighths the quarter. He slides the new wedges over and fumbles for another lime. He gets faster. Muscle memory kicks in. His hands – the best hands in the game – are gliding again, chopping away. Bliss.
Some of us have exams. Ramon has this.
“Why didn’t you come shout for me!? There are so many people out there!” Margo yells as she barges out of the Store Manager office.
Ramon winces, drops his knife, and yells one of thirty-eight words prohibited by Burrito Cantina. He did, in fact, shout for Margo about twenty minutes ago, but she couldn’t hear him. She was in her office, feet on her desk, earbuds in, watching anime on her phone. The subtitles made it hard for her to focus on anything else, he assumed. Now making it hard to focus on anything else, is the blood squirting out of Ramon’s left thumb.
Margo runs into her office and out again, tossing him a finger cot and a bandage. “Put these on and meet me out there ASAP,” she grunts, simultaneously tearing off her hoodie and putting on a company visor on her way to the front of the store. She does not see the large chunk of Ramon’s thumb hanging like the end of a half torn open bag of a shake-and-serve salad, the red dressing dripping everywhere. He wraps the bandage around as pain shoots through his hand, and for a second, considers going to the emergency room to receive a proper reattachment. He considers, too, going back out there holding a bucket of limes with his nine fingers and an approximation of a thumb, and triumphantly handing Kyle/Kyler/Kayden the best burrito that boy has ever had. And finally, he considers whether or not Kyle/Kyler/Kayden would even notice the perfectly even distribution of the ingredients or the way the tortilla is pulled to the point of stretching but not ripping. Would anyone?
He looks back up at Margo, who pauses and turns around.
“By the way, I’m really sorry I left you alone out there,” Margo grunts. “You are so reliable – the best employee we’ve got. Whenever I work with you I sometimes forget I even need to be here.”
Ramon nods, still clutching his left hand. The pain subsides, if only a little.
“Anyway, before you get back to the floor, could you – ”
“Cut new limes,” Ramon answers. “Got it.”
Ramon stands behind the counter again, completing orders. Margo works the register.
“Take your time Ramon, you’re doing great!” She reminds.
Ramon is slower than before, but things are easier with two Cantina Crew members dividing the work. Not rolling the burrito – that remains difficult. With every roll and tuck, the end of his thumb wiggles around the bone and the blood gushes out onto a bandage that is struggling to hold on. The finger cot helps. He actually didn’t know what a finger cot was, until he watched The Founder’s special guest appearance in the Orientation workplace safety video. Seventeen minutes and thirty-four seconds in, smooth jazz plays while The Founder demonstrates:
If you cut your fingers during food prep, you may continue to work as long as you wear a finger cot. To apply the finger cot, place the finger cot at the tip of your finger, and then roll the finger cot down to the base of your finger. (Ramon could tell they kept repeating ‘finger cot’ to distract from the fact that it is pretty much just a tiny condom). The finger cot will encase the injured area to ensure that no blood makes contact with the customer’s meal.
The smooth jazz stops, and The Founder looks straight into the camera:
A reminder: Burrito Cantina prefers that you never have to wear a finger cot at all. We care deeply about you and your well-being and want nothing more than for you to take care of yourself. Remember, our greatest product is not our Crazy Queso™, or our Fruit Pancho Villa™. It’s our people. You are our greatest product.
Jason Pangilinan is a short fiction writer and live storyteller. He lives in Washington D.C. with his wife and his dog.