A Nightmare in One Act

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Restaurant Owner: [seated at desk, suddenly bolts upright] Health Inspector! I didn’t hear you come in!

Health Inspector: I think you were dozing.

Owner: [stammering] I — I’m — I’m sorry! Is that a violation?

Inspector: [smiling warmly] Not at all, my friend, not at all. You’re a hard-working Ipswich business owner. You need your rest.

Owner: [sweating] I don’t! I don’t need any rest! I’m fine! I’m sorry I was dozing! I can handle this business! I need this business! Please don’t shut down my restaurant!

Inspector: [laughing warmly] Oh, my friend, no worries. I’m not here to shut you down. Far from it! [clears throat] Now then. Let’s take a little walk through your kitchen, shall we?

Owner: [mumbling] Oh God.

Inspector: [laughing warmly, as Owner follows nervously] Oh please, don’t call me that.

Owner: [sweating] Sorry. [genuflects] To both of You.

Inspector: [arriving at kitchen, pulls thermometer out of pocket, plunges it into meatloaf] You know, my friend, as I slipped in here a few moments ago, I saw one of your kitchen workers handling food with their bare hands. You know that’s a no-no, don’t you?

Owner: Handling food? With their bare hands?

Inspector: Yes, my friend. When a customer added a cookie to his order at the last moment, the clerk added a cookie to the plate — with her bare hands.

Owner: I’ll — I’ll — I’ll make sure it never happens again!

Inspector: Now let’s check that meatloaf [chuckling], make sure it doesn’t have a fever. [chuckling, retrieves thermometer from meatloaf, examines it] Oh my.

Owner: “Oh my”? “Oh my”? What does “Oh my” mean?

Inspector: This meatloaf is 42 degrees.

Owner: [kneading fingers] 42 degrees?

Inspector: Fahrenheit.

Owner: Oh no! Not Fahrenheit!

Inspector: Yes, I’m afraid so. 42 degrees Celsius would have been legal.

Owner: Oh God!

Inspector: I told you not to call me that.

Owner: No, sorry, I was actually praying.

Inspector: [smiling warmly] You know, of course, that you have to reheat cooked food to 165 degrees Fahrenheit within two hours and throw out cooked food not reheated to 165 degrees Fahrenheit within two hours — right?

Owner: [pulling handkerchief from pocket] Yes! Yes, I knew that! [wiping upper lip with handkerchief; stopping suddenly] Wait — is it legal to wipe my upper lip with my handkerchief?

Inspector: [laughing warmly] Yes, of course! Just so long as you put it back in the same pocket. Without letting it touch anything else. Just like ordinary, everyday, regular, normal people do.

Owner: [breathing a bit heavily, putting handkerchief back in the same pocket] Yes, I’m ordinary. I’m regular. [brightening a bit] We run our business that way! We prepare and serve food the way people do at home!

Inspector: [laughing warmly] Of course you do! That’s what I love about this place!

Owner: [frowning] You do?

Inspector: [smiling warmly] Of course I do! [moving to sink] Now, let me draw your attention to this hand sink. [pointing] Look down there. What do you see?

Owner: [looking, frowning] A little piece of food?

Inspector: Yes.

Owner: Uh, so?

Inspector: [smiling warmly] Well, you know, I’m sure, that there shouldn’t be any dishes washed, or any food disposed of, in the hand sink. It’s a silly regulation, I know, but the hand sink is only for washing hands. Hands. [holding up hands] Hands. [turning hands around, back and forth] Only hands.

Owner: [looking puzzled] Uh, yes, OK, I totally get that, but, uh, what if the thing the employee is washing off of their hands in the hand sink is food? And a little bit of food winds up in the hand sink?

Inspector: [smiling warmly] Let’s move on. I see you have a coffee mug sitting there on your slicer.

Owner: It was tea, actually, but yes — I see it there. Yes.

Inspector: [smiling warmly] Well, that’s not technically allowed. [leaning in to Owner] I know it’s outrageous, but it’s a regulation. [wincing deviously, speaking quietly] Don’t tell anybody, but I set my mug down wherever I damn well please at home! [snorts]

Owner: [chuckling uneasily] OK.

Inspector: [looking around; opening ice machine] See here? There are two spots of mold.

Owner: [backing off, horrified] We empty out that freezer and sanitize it regularly! [peering in] Are you sure that’s not my daughter’s Halloween food coloring?

Inspector: [smiling warmly] Maybe you’re right. [opening recycling bin] Look in here. Three flies. And they’re not even alive.

Owner: [peering into the recycling bin] Wow. My bad. I don’t think you can recycle dead flies. Maybe their wings, on “filmy plastics” day?

Inspector: [chuckling warmly] You can’t recycle live ones, either. If they’re in the Ipswich Recycles bin, they’re just not in the right place! See? They need to be over there [pointing] — in the Ipswich Curbside Compost bin.

Owner: [breaking down in tears] I’m doomed! Doomed!

Inspector: [smiling warmly, slipping an encouraging arm around Owner’s shoulder] There, there. Everything is going to be all right.

Owner: [slumping into chair, weeping] All I’ve ever done is prepare and serve food the way people in Ipswich have prepared and served food in their homes for 380 years!

Inspector: [smiling warmly] Now, look. Settle down. I realize I’m a little fixated on “food contact surfaces” being separated from “personal eating, drinking, and smoking.” [growing more and more grim] But if one of your kitchen employees goes out back for a smoke, and they munch a Slim Jim, and there’s fleck of Slim Jim on their face when they come back into your kitchen, and they wash their hands, and that fleck of Slim Jim falls off their face into the hand sink, well, that just freaks me out.

Owner: [leaning away, fearfully] Yes, I can see that.

Inspector: [smiling warmly] Here’s the truth, my friend. You and I both know that a lot of the health regulations are ridiculous. And others are too extreme. A few are important — you want to store food at temperatures where pathogens can’t grow, right? Because pathogens are very bad. But for most part, to tell you the truth, you can cook here in your restaurant kitchen the same way you cook in your kitchen at home, and everything is going to be OK.

Owner: [fidgeting nervously] It is?

Inspector: [smiling warmly] The important thing is, we need to keep you open. Lots of people enjoy this place. Ipswich needs you. We don’t want you to have to close, just because a housefly tried to be recycling martyr.

Owner: [chuckles nervously]

Inspector: [smiling warmly, taking a deep breath] Now then. I’m going to slip outside for a cigarette. I’m going to call my grandchildren in Indiana. It’s Moonglow’s fourth birthday! And then, in about an hour, I’m going to come back in here. With my clipboard. And I’m going to do an inspection. An OFFICIAL inspection.

Owner: [quivers]

Inspector: [smiling warmly] I figure by that time, you’ll have anything and everything ready for me to sign off on. Spit spot! Perfectly perfect! Ready or not! Right?

Owner: [shivers] Right.

Inspector: [leans in to Owner, earnestly, smiling warmly] Because you know what will happen if you don’t pass the OFFICIAL inspection, don’t you?

Owner: [quaking] You’ll shut me down?

Inspector: [hugging Owner warmly with one arm, guffawing] No, of course not! We have so many empty storefronts in Ipswich already, the last thing I want to do is create another one! You silly goose!

Owner: [chuckling weakly]

Inspector: [hugging Owner even more warmly] No, if you don’t pass this inspection, I’m going to tell the Ipswich Chronicle.

Owner: [chuckling even more weakly] The Chronicle?

Inspector: [pulling away; gleam in eye] You’ll be page one news! “Restaurant Fails Health Inspection!” [hugging Owner more warmly than ever, smiling more warmly than ever] Who will want to eat in your restaurant if you get that kind of press? Now we don’t want that kind of trouble, do we, my friend?

Owner: [chuckling more weakly than ever] No, we don’t, do we.

Inspector: [letting Owner go] And of course, for repeat violations, we have no choice but to take even more extreme measures.

Owner: [trembling] More extreme?

Inspector: [smiling warmly] Yes. I’ll have to put a great big notice in your window, detailing every single one of your violations. That would be horrible, now, wouldn’t it.

Owner: [collapsing into chair, breathing hard] A notice in my window.

Inspector: [smiling warmly, placing hand gently on Owner’s shoulder] I’m afraid so, my friend. And that would break my heart.

Owner: [looking up, dazedly] You’re so — so — gentle. You’re — you’re like — Andy Griffith!

Inspector: [smiling warmly, turning to go] That’s the beauty of life in small-town America, my friend. We do everything we can to help each other succeed. [at front door] All right, neighbor, I’ll see you soon. And remember: I’m committed to keeping Ipswich businesses open. The most important thing is to keep you going strong! Bringing in those happy customers! Filling the downtown streets with throngs of devoted shoppers! [opens door to leave] Ta-ta! See you soon!

Owner: [suddenly alert; jumping up, raising an arm] Wait!

Inspector: [stopping, turning back to Owner] Yes?

Owner: [looking utterly mystified] You’re really not going to shut me down?

Inspector: [smiling warmly] No! Of course not! [turns to go]

Owner: [looking utterly mystified] Is this really Ipswich?

Inspector: [turning back, smiling warmly] Yes! [turns again to go]

Owner: Wait!

Inspector: [stopping, turning back again, smiling warmly] Yes?

Owner: [frowning uneasily; pausing a long time] Is this a dream?

Inspector: [pausing, smiling warmly, waving jauntily, turning to go] Yes!

[Inspector exits.]

Owner: [slumping into chair] Thank God. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven.

[Owner wakes up.]

 

 

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