He was born on a smoggy morning in the burbs, twelve pounds plus, John Henry. Biceps like pork tenderloins. Skin dark as French Roast. Woke right up and said, All due respect, I’d like me a dozen eggs scrambled, side of Canadian bacon. Starred on his high school football team when he was four. Ran over cornerbacks like a train over cornstalks.
When he was six John Henry walked into his momma’s kitchen and found his calling. Took her old silver spatula and started serving it up: Shrimp grits, scratch biscuits and smoked sausage gravy, flapjacks with organic marmalade; eggs over easy, sunnyside up, poached, boiled, scrambled, or benedicted; scrapple, goeta, raisin toast, cinnamon bread. Homemade beer-braised brats and metts, linguini with truffles and clams, Korean flank steak over kimchee, empanadas with braised duck and gruyere. Pheasant under glass. Lemongrass chicken. Fig gastrique. Bananas Foster.
Whatever your granny makes, John Henry made it twice as tasty and lower fat.
Dropped out of college and showed up at the Johnny Rocket’s down at the mall. Johnny Four Blade, they called him: Saturday nights with lines out the door and John Henry on the grill, two silver spatulas in each big paw, forty burgers sizzling at a time and those spatulas ringing off the grill like Sunday bell choir, one-two, one-two. Handled the prep station and the deep frier at the same time too. Used those spatulas to cut the lettuce, sliced iceberg heads spinning in midair, 30 seconds to the crate. Chopped white onions flying up like a blizzard on the cutting board. Baskets of fries and onion rings hitting the oil every few minutes, hissing like a truckbed full of rattlesnakes.
Man from Corporate showed up to tell ’em one guy couldn’t staff the whole kitchen. John Henry made him three #12s, perfect mountain of fries, and a chocolate shake so good dead Aztecs stirred in their slumber. Rang out selections from Pirates of Penzance with his spatulas while he cooked. Man turned around and went back to Corporate without a word besides “burp”.
Twelve years Johnny Four-Blade ran the kitchen full steam. Spatulas ringing like the halleluja chorus, a full-tent revival every night. Wore out fourteen cash registers. Thirty-six waitresses come and go. Sweat off his hairnet like the Tigris meeting the Amazon.
Then one day a semi pulled up and off came The Machine.
This Machine, says the driver, automates the whole deal. Perfect patties every time. Medium rare. With cheese. With Red Sauce. With pickles. Labor costs down to nearly nothing. Never takes a sick day. Margins through the roof.
So they ooh, and they aah, and they assemble the mighty Machine, stainless gleaming there on the kitchen floor and cranking out burgers with mechanical precision, one-two, one-two.
John Henry says, All due respect, no Machine plays the Hallelujah corus on the grill. So they have themselves a contest. John Henry versus the Machine.
Daybreak, they start. Machine versus Johnny Four-Blade.
Machine goes one-two, one-two. Eggs and sausage. Burgers and fries. John Henry goes one-two, one-two. Eggs and sausage. Burgers and fries.
Grill starts ringing.
All day it rings. Pachelbel’s Canon, Take the A-Train, solos from Rush. Buddy Rich. Hot for Teacher. Burgers and fries.
Night comes and goes. Dinner crowd thins, breakfast crowd wanders in. Machine coughs.
Breakfast breaks, lunch comes ’round. Machine flickers. John Henry flinches and burns one basket of fries.
Lunch ends. Lettuce bin is empty. Burgers have freezer burn. Fry-o-lator oil needs changing. Dinner starts.
It was midnight when the crowd waned and the song of the grill washed that Machine down to the bottom of the river. Coughed, sputtered, sighed; started churning out medium-wells. Hiccuped. Charred a few. John Henry wiped his brow, wiped his spatulas.
12:37, order came in:
Two burgers. Red sauce. Cheese. No pickle.
The Machine sizzled once more. Jerked to life. Burned the patties. Stale bun. Tossed on a pickle.
John Henry hit his mark: Two burgers. Red sauce. Cheese.
Served it up, plated his fries.
Man from Corporate said: Johny Four-Blade wins. And John Henry laid down his spatula, and he died, Lord Lord. Laid down his spatula and died.
Ain’t no memorial at John Henry’s grave. No four stars, no Iron Chef, no Top Chef. No fancy headstone. Machine runs Johnny Rocket’s now. Omlettes from a bag, burgers from a box. All you’ll find at John Henry’s grave is a plain pine box. And four spatulas.
But if you listen close, you can hear Pachelbel’s Canon. Metal on metal, ringing off the grill.