The only job I have ever been fired from was the one I had at a café called Bistro Moon. I was working evening shifts there while getting my master’s in literature from Kerala University. After five months, I was made shift manager. Hardly had I got used to that, when I received my first customer complaint.
Complaints were rare. Not just because we were meant to run a tight outfit but also because we attracted a certain kind of customer. Bistro Moon wanted to be hip. I suppose it did succeed, at least on a superficial level. We served gourmet burgers and shakes. Our walls had graffiti done by a local artist. We played niche songs sent to us by the owner, a 30-year-old man who made us call him “Sid”. And our customers: They were young, rich, happy and usually polite.
The complaining table now seated a preppy couple. Sheepishly, the man handed me a wet piece of paper. It was less than the size of my pinky and had some writing on it, but nothing I could read.
“It’s no problem,” the man said. “But I found that in my sandwich.”
I apologised to him, his girlfriend too, and offered to comp their meal.
I reacted to that first piece of paper by nervously bringing it up at night while closing shop.
Thing is, I was disliked by the four others who worked at Bistro Moon. Unlike me, they worked all day, often between different restaurants, and had been doing so for a while.
When Sid made me manager of the busiest shift, and that too over people more experienced, there was a lot of grumbling. Everyone probably thought I was more like Sid than them, what with me studying literature and working part-time and all that.
I didn’t think I should have been made manager either. I suspect Sid did so because I spoke good English and because once, when he mentioned Jean-Luc Godard, I’d acted like I’d seen his films.
No one listened to my thoughts on hygiene now. Dinesh continued washing dishes while his phone played music. Megha and Arun were talking to each other. Joel kept wiping the counter.
A second piece of paper showed up the following day. This time it wasn’t in some tame college kid’s food. Just my luck, I had to deal with someone who was a restaurateur himself and knew Sid personally. He repeated “personally” twice or thrice, as though Sid was someone famous and I needed convincing.
While he didn’t shout, he did make me list the differences between Bistro Moon and McDonald’s. I stared at the man’s hand. The piece of paper he was holding resembled the one from day before. Small. Pale white in colour. Some writing on it. He wouldn’t let me have a closer look though—saying instead that he would give it to Sid—and dismissed me with: “A restaurant is like a ship. A couple of holes are all it takes.”
Back in the kitchen, I tried explaining to Dinesh what had happened, and asked him if he had any pointers. “Nope,” he said. At 35, Dinesh was the oldest there.
With everyone else he seemed helpful, but all I got was blunt.
If two paper chits was concerning, three was incredible. Thankfully, I was the one who found the third. It happened to be in a takeout lasagna which, since no one had picked up, I’d made my dinner.
I pulled the soggy chit out of my mouth, put it on my desk, and wiped off the sauce. Under the lamp, it read: “Loan Repay.” It looked exactly like the other chits. The writing was printed. Loan Repay?
By then Sid had heard from his friend. He called me.
“A restaurant is like a ship,” he said.
“Yes, a couple of holes, I know.”
“A couple? No. One hole. A couple, it seems.”
I apologised to Sid. He told me he would visit on the weekend for a full report. “If you can’t do your job, I understand,” he said. “But in my book, the buck stops with you.”
The line went dead.
Barely two weeks since my managerial ascension and I was slipping from Sid’s good graces. At that point, I’d just moved out of my parents’ house after a long scrap about independence. I would make my own way, I’d told them, and pay my own tuition. The speech I delivered was so bombastic you would have thought I was liberating a small country.
The last thing I wanted was to lose my job.
Lying in bed that night, I ran through different theories. At 2am, I started to wonder if I had a mutiny on my hands. Annoyed by my promotion, had the staff banded together, perhaps under Dinesh, to try and get me in trouble, or at the very least, prank me?
The following evening, I was resolved to catch my culprit. My first hope was that Toby would have returned from his leave. Toby was a relatively new cook, and yet he was so friendly with everyone, including me, that he was called Toby Bear. If he was back, I might have got some answers. No luck.
Next I checked the CCTV. Another dead end. A few months back, Sid had downgraded our security so he could pay for his annual jazz concert.
By night, I was without ideas and had taken to prowling the kitchen. That’s when it struck me that the chit looked familiar. Sure enough, when I checked, it matched the thin paper in the restaurant’s label maker. The font was a match too.
My plan, then, was to keep my eye on the label maker and see who went for it. Finally, a few hours before closing, it was Joel who did.
I’d noticed a while ago that there was something going on with Joel. He was a quiet guy to begin with, but lately he was always sulking. He tended to stare at walls, or into the distance. Often, after solitary cigarette breaks, he looked like he’d been crying. I felt bad for him. The few times I’d asked what was wrong, though, he’d simply shrugged. Were the chits some sort of a protest against the service industry?
“Why do you need the label maker?” I asked.
But before he could answer, Dinesh stepped in and said, “Sid is coming or not? Before he gets here, you want all the stock labelled or you’ll do it yourself?”
“I’ll do it myself,” I said defiantly, and ended up staying till 2.
That night, we had no complaints. A fourth chit, though, was found by a customer the very next evening. This one said “3 lakhs now” on the front side. On the other side, it just had the word “dick”.
I stormed into the kitchen. “Okay, this needs to stop. It’s not funny any more. Someone could choke or get sick. We could all get fired.”
Megha and Arun looked at the floor, as if ashamed, but Joel and Dinesh kept doing prep work.
An hour later, I was thinking of calling Sid and risking a heart-to-heart when, to my relief, Toby Bear showed up. I dragged him to the backyard and lit two cigarettes.
“Alright, what the hell is going on with these chits?”
Toby seemed unsure if he wanted to act completely lost or only slightly.
In the end, he said, “Ah, I heard something was happening, but I have no clue about the details. I only came to get my bag.”
This was the line he held for the next five minutes, but once I started rambling about a kitchen mutiny, he sighed and said, “C’mon, this has nothing to do with you. It’s just a random, crazy thing. Trust me.”
“Who’s doing it then? Why?”
“I’m not snitching.”
“Give me a hint.”
“No. But I heard that it won’t happen again.”
I took a drag on my cigarette to seem authoritative. “You’re sure?”
“Yes. It’s been handled.”
“That’s what you heard?”
“That’s what I heard.”
I still couldn’t bring myself to trust what Toby was saying, but he wouldn’t reveal anything more.
That night was a Friday night. The weather was pleasant since it had rained in the afternoon. The café began filling up with more people than I’d ever seen. There was a general air of celebration. Not with me, though. As if I wasn’t worried enough, Sid decided to stop by a day earlier, and he’d brought his buddy, the captain of restaurants.
First thing Sid said to me was: “There’s a review online that another customer got served something with a piece of paper.”
I pretended to be confused. “At this restaurant?”
“What exactly is happening?”
Sid and his friend sat down in the customer area despite me pushing them to a private table, away from danger. With a promise to explain everything soon, I disappeared again to the kitchen and turned up the volume on Sid’s latest playlist.
During that night, I must have inspected over 50 plates of food. Two hours went by and then somehow, three. Sid showed no intention of leaving. In fact, as the crowd grew, he seemed to enjoy sitting there and bragging to his friend.
In the back, there was one person in particular I was keeping an eye on. Joel. Not only because he was acting increasingly shifty, but because others in the kitchen seemed to be glancing at him too.
At around 9, my vigilance paid off. I saw Joel take a strip of paper from his pocket, roll it, dip it in sauce, and place it near a burger he was supposed to be plating.
I marched towards him but was intercepted by Dinesh, who pulled me into the walk-in fridge. In my anger, I nearly punched him.
“Look,” Dinesh said, “you can talk to Joel, but don’t shout at him. He is going through something at the moment.”
“I don’t care.”
“He’s been very depressed and confused. Things at his home, they are bad.”
“His mother has late-stage cancer. And he’s about to lose his house to the bank.”
“So?” I’m not heartless, I should say; just bewildered. “So he does random things with food?”
Dinesh didn’t answer at first. When I moved to the door, he nudged me back, and seemed embarrassed about what he was about to say.
“Look, Joel has somehow got it into his head that if he writes his problems on these chits and if he gets one of those happy folk to swallow it, some of his problems might get swallowed too. That his own situation might improve.”
I squinted at Dinesh, feeling now that the chits weren’t the prank; the prank was getting me to believe this stuff.
But Dinesh was serious, and to be honest, he didn’t seem like the pranking sort anyway.
I sat down on a box of olives.
Clearing his throat, Dinesh added, “Like I said, he’s depressed and confused. We talked to him. He promised to stop.”
“What the hell is this, black magic?”
“No. Just something he’s thought up.”
“That he can make them eat his problems, and the problems go away?”
“Something like that.”
“Bullshit, he goes to the church and wears a cross.”
“Yeah, didn’t do him any good though.”
I put a cigarette in my mouth and started to light it before realising we were indoors. “You just let him believe this instead?”
“We only found out once it happened a few times.”
Dinesh took my lighter and clicked it on and off. “He said his mother got slightly better after the first time he did it—on a whim. After he got jealous watching some customers joke around.”
“His mother got better?”
Dinesh shrugged. “I agree. Probably something he imagined. But she’s going to die and he’s losing his house. What more am I supposed to say?”
When I walked out of the fridge, I intended to stop Joel. But halfway there, I found myself slowing down and watching him.
He was still working on the burger— soaking his chit again and again in different sauces, adjusting its position between the lettuce and the tomatoes, trying to make it as small and as unintrusive as possible— and handling the whole thing with great care. It resembled a religious ceremony. Outside I heard laughter, and imagined Joel thinking it was only fair for them to take on some of his worries.
Then, before I could decide what to do, Megha picked up the order and carried it off through the kitchen door. I followed her and meant to get the plate back. Again I hesitated. Once it was set down on a table, I thought—I’m not sure what I thought—maybe I was just too dazed and taken aback.
Later that night, after yet another complaint, Sid offered everyone a chance to confess or watch me get fired. I didn’t expect anyone to confess. I didn’t think they could afford to. And of course they didn’t.
A few minutes past midnight, I sat down on my apartment steps, looked at job postings and munched on a leftover chicken sandwich. My tongue felt paper. I didn’t pull it out this time though, but slowly chewed, swallowed, and wished Joel well.
Aravind Jayan is a Bengaluru-based writer whose debut novel, Teen Couple Have Fun Outdoors, came out in 2022. He won the Toto Award for Fiction in 2017 and was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize in 2021.