Tires and Hamburgers

Tobin's Tires was next door to the Greenville McDonalds so the tire workers often got their lunch from the fast food chain. Jeremy Benson was one of those workers and he was surprised to notice that Caroline Baker worked the counter at the hamburger joint on most lunch shifts.

Jeremy was initially embarrassed to be seen by Caroline in his greasy dirty filthy work clothes but then it occurred to him that Caroline was most likely feeling just as awkward being seen by him in her McDonald's uniform.

They were two years out of high school and both probably didn't envision themselves fixing tires and selling hamburgers now that those glory days were over.

At first, Jeremy avoided Caroline beyond her polite "Hello" and "How May I Help You?" when she served him (he purposely tried to get in another line when he first realized she was a regular worker there) but after a while Jeremy decided that it wasn't necessarily a bad thing to interact with his high school pal's sister even though she didn't have a whole lot to say to him other than "Thanks, come again," whenever he finished placing his order.

Caroline had always been a sickly thin person and she was still a toothpick even with tons of greasy meat and starchy fries at her daily disposal. Jeremy was amused at Caroline's multiple hair changes – she wore her normally blond hair long, usually pulled back in a ponytail underneath her McDonald's visor or ball cap but it would often be streaked with pink, purple, orange, black, or blue which made her noticeable among the other workers, many working moms pulling the lunch time shift for extra money while their kids were in school.

Jeremy had no reason to be judgmental of Caroline of McDonalds and he was the last person who would look down his nose at her given his present circumstances. He limped into McDonalds each day and placed his order (rotating from a quarter pounder with cheese one day to a Big Mac the next, with a 10 piece chicken nugget meal tossed in on occasion just to mix it up).

Caroline was friendly enough but she kept it professional and she rarely engaged him in conversation, even when the place was slow and he tried to converse with her while waiting for the food order.

Jeremy had been placing his order to go, eating with the guys in the back room of the tire shop, but he began ordering as "eat in" and he would man the table closest to the counter so he could observe Caroline taking orders, pouring coffee, making ice cream cones, and being cheerful to the customers.

Jeremy had no idea why he felt drawn to Caroline all of a sudden, especially given the bad blood between him and her brother Teddy during those last few years of high school that ended their life-long friendship.

Caroline had been friendly when Jeremy hung around the Baker's house on Green Hill. She ran in different social circles than him at Greenville High so their paths didn't cross that often and once Jeremy's friendship with her brother soured there was little reason for Caroline to engage Jeremy in conversation.

On this day, Jeremy was seated at his usual table eating his McDonald's lunch when Caroline joined him for the first time. She had a small coke and an apple pie with her.

"What are you doing here, Caroline?" Jeremy asked.

"I'm on break," she replied.

"I mean what are you doing working here?" He clarified.

"Are you stalking me?" Caroline wanted to know.

"I work at the tire place," he said, gesturing toward the window and the business next door.

"I realize this," she replied, motioning at his red Tobin Tire Tee Shirt. "But there's a Subway down the street and a pizza joint the other way. Yet you're in here every day."

"It's closest," he shrugged.

"You're going to weigh 300 pounds before you know it," she warned.

"I burn a lot of calories in my job," he said, studying her. "You didn't answer my question."

"My parents will only pay for my apartment if I have a job," Caroline explained sheepishly.

"You moved out?"

"They sort of wanted me to leave," Caroline sighed. "I'm an embarrassment to them."

Jeremy didn't say anything, watching her eat her apple pie.

"What are you doing fixing tires?" She asked with her mouth full of pie.

"Charlie O'Brien's dad manages the place," he replied. "I was an easy hire."

"Tires?" She asked.

"I didn't grow up on Green Hill, Caroline," he reminded her. "My football scholarship went out the window when I shattered my ankle junior year. I'm taking a night course or two at Blue County Community College but I'm the son of a widowed Mom without a lot of resources. What else am I going to do?"

"I guess that's my answer too," Caroline told him. "What else am I going to do?"

"College?"

She shook her head no. "I'm not very smart," she said. "I was held back in fifth grade. I faked my way through high school mostly on reputation and my brother's popularity. College isn't for me."

He gazed at her for a long moment. "I don't think McDonalds is for you either."

"It is for now," Caroline reasoned. "Until I figure things out." She peered at him. "Is the tire place for you?"

"For now," Jeremy decided. "Until I figure things out."

"Do you want to figure things out together?" She asked.

"I don't think your family would approve," Jeremy replied.

"Why should I give a shit what my family thinks at this point?" Caroline wanted to know. "Besides, don't you want to spite my bastard brother?"

"I'm not interested in that stuff," Jeremy replied. "But I wouldn't mind getting to know you better."

"You have a thing for McDonalds workers?" She teased.

"Maybe I have a thing for you," Jeremy replied truthfully.

"Since when?" She frowned.

"Since always," he admitted blushingly.

"But you knew it was a non-starter," Caroline realized.

"I didn't grow up on The Hill," he reminded her again.

She peered at him for a long moment. Finally, she took a napkin from his side of the table and she took a pen out of her shirt pocket.

"Here's my address," she said. "And my cell number. And my e-mail." She slid the napkin back to him. "Let's figure things out," she smiled before she left the table and returned to her post behind the counter.

Jeremy smiled to himself as he returned to work, surprised at how easy it was to finally reconnect with Caroline Baker once they broke the uncomfortable and awkward ice.

Jeremy had befriended Teddy through sports – they worked out together, competed together, played together, won and lost together, and that was what kept them connected through the years, even though Jeremy's background was totally different from a social, economic and family perspective.

Jeremy and his mother lived in the Greenville Trailer Park while Teddy lived in a twelve room Victorian on prestigious Green Hill. Jeremy's mother was a maid at the Greenville Super 8 – Teddy's Dad was a successful oral surgeon and Mrs. Baker was a partner with her father's firm of Clemson and Baker CPA and Auditors.

It all ended for Jeremy when his ankle was broken in three places in a gruesome football injury that required metal screws being drilled into his foot to allow him to walk, although with a noticeable limp. Once he became damaged goods, Teddy lost interest in Jeremy and, in fact, backstabbed him when it came to Jeremy's girlfriend at the time, Anita.

But all of that was old news now and if Caroline really was on the outs with her family there was no reason why Jeremy shouldn't give it a shot with her without restrictions and expectations placed on them. He hadn't been with anybody in a while and the thought of being with Caroline intrigued him.