Leaving Louis’s office, it occurred to me that I hadn’t yet taken Keith Conway into consideration, and that yes, he might be a problem.
But had Keith Conway even noticed Diane Parker?
My answer to that question was not long in coming.
“Hey, Stevie!” I heard someone shout.
Speak of the devil. Or Keith Conway. Scant difference between the two.
Keith worked back in the kitchen area. I could see his tall, broad-shouldered frame between the metal shelves that the kitchen crew used to supply the customer service staff with cooked menu items, almost all of them fried.
Keith’s long blond hair was tied back in a hairnet. He was smiling sardonically at me, accenting that dimpled chin of his, which I found ridiculous, but which I had once heard a girl at West Clermont describe as “the likeness of an ancient Greek god.”
This same girl was quite intelligent. (How many high school students, when pushed for a metaphor, go instinctively to classical mythology, after all?) And I would have thought her amply capable of seeing past Keith Conway’s superficial charms. But I still had much to learn—or at least to accept—about such matters.
“Come back here,” Keith said, beckoning to me. He was standing over one of the fryers, tending a batch of the uniformly cut, uniformly cooked French fries that have always been a signature staple of McDonald’s.
I was torn. I should really have proceeded directly to my cash register. But I also wanted to hear what Keith Conway had to say. Ordinarily, I regarded Keith as a noisome presence to be avoided. But now I was in intelligence-gathering mode.
The other two cashiers on duty had been watching me while I was talking to Louis. They were watching me now, too, as I talked to Keith Conway.
“Hey, Steve,” Jenny Tierney said, pulling some coins from her register’s cash tray to give to a customer. “Come on. We’re backing up here.”
Jenny had just graduated from South Clermont High School. I didn’t know her well, and that was fine with me. Jenny had a reputation for being something of a tattletale, a goody-two-shoes who was always telling other people what to do.
But in this instance she wasn’t being unreasonable: I looked out into the dining area and saw that there was, indeed, a line backing up behind both of the two cash registers that were currently in operation.
“I’ll be right there,” I said. And then I stepped around the shelves and back into the kitchen area.
In contemporary parlance, Keith and I were what might be called “frenemies”. We had known each other forever, really—ever since our days of elementary school and tee-ball. But we were like oil and water together, and both of us knew it. We had never come to blows; and we maintained an external pretense of civility. We were teenage boys, however, and that pretense of civility occasionally cracked.
As soon as I walked back into the kitchen area, two of Keith’s sycophants immediately fixed their attention on me, clearly interested in what was about to happen next. Keith was the unofficial leader of the guys in the kitchen on the night shift.
Jonesey, a seventeen year-old who attended South Clermont, diverted his attention from his fryer to fix his gaze on his leader. Jonesey—whose actual name was Albert Jones—would seemingly miss no opportunity to curry favor with Keith.
The other Keith Conway follower, a chubby West Clermont junior named Scott Thomas, was watching and listening, too. He was chopping unions on a metal table near the fryers, but that work was paused as I stepped back into the kitchen.
“How are you doin’, Stevie?” Keith asked.
“Excellent,” I said. “Never better.”
My mother called me Stevie, and that was fine. But when Keith adopted the diminutive form of my name, it was usually because he was about to annoy me.
“I guess you’ve seen the new girl,” Keith said, jumping right to the heart of the matter. “Diane.”
“No,” I said. “I haven’t seen her.” I hadn’t yet, after all.
Keith made a noise with his lips that suggested I was lying. Scott Thomas and Jonesey simpered at their master, and sneered at me.
“Don’t tell me you don’t think she’s cute,” Keith insisted.
“Have you even heard me, Keith? I just got here. I haven’t seen her yet.”
“Well, when you do, you’re going to think she’s cute. And you shouldn’t get your hopes up. That girl is sweet on me, I’m telling you. She’s going to be taking a ride in the Love Machine any day now.”
This prompted much laughter and sniggering from the red-haired Jonesy, as well as the chubby Scott.
Keith drove a black 1971 Trans Am. He constantly referred to it as his “Love Machine”.
And not entirely without reason. Plenty of girls found Keith attractive. Not only was he a big blond guy with an attitude. He occupied a niche between jock and outlaw that was uniquely possible in an environment like Clermont County.
Keith played tight end for the West Clermont football team. He was also fond of smoking weed, and binge drinking. Keith had been arrested at least once for drunk driving. He saw no contradiction between these two modes of behavior.
And many girls—including some otherwise smart ones—found this combination irresistibly appealing.
“Steve—come on!” I heard Jenny Tierney shout from the cashiers’ area. “We need some help here.”
“I’ve got to get to work, Keith,” I said. “Later.”