The Ghost of the Perfect Hotdog
Everyone was talking about the killer. First,
Maria Sanchez was found in
the drainage ditch, then Jeremy Fisher from my class was found behind the
carwash, and then two nights ago, a woman ended up in a dumpster behind the
Kentucky Fried Chicken. But no one knew her name yet. Details were scarce, but
police suspected the same killer. All were strangled. Word had leaked
about welts of some sort.
It was 1:30 AM, and I was hungry. The Taco Cabana
was sloshing with
drunks. The guy at the next table kept sneezing. I got up to get
more condiments and was bombarded with a handshake and a Sogoodtoseeyouhaven'tseenyouinforever.
It was my old friend
Devin. He introduced me to Blake, the
sneezer. Blake’s pupils were huge. He stared me in the eye for so long I
wanted to look away. He apologized again for sneezing. He couldn’t believe
how much he was
sneezing. He knew he was disturbing everyone’s
meal. He sure was sorry.
We ate together and drank a round, but the beer
was too expensive to keep
going. Devin pointed east. “Let’s go to the 7-11. I need some smokes.”
“I have beer at my apartment,” I said.
It was a quarter of a mile, and we were on foot.
One of Devin’s legs was
congenitally shorter than the other, plus they were drunk, so we would be easy
prey for killers or cops. I kicked an empty RC can and smelled the factories
south of town rendering cattle from the stockyards to the east.
Blake looked behind us, then to either side. “So
Devin shook his head. “No idea.” Then
he expounded on his belief that a
copycat was involved.
Blake spat on the grass between the sidewalk and
the road. “They’re saying
the woman the other night was pregnant.”
Devin looked back and forth between us. “Who
told you that?”
But Blake was already talking about clothing patterns
and bruising. He was
hard to follow because his words came in quick spurts and my mind was bouncing
between the article I had read on global warming that morning and my
ex-girlfriend’s decision to abort our would-have-been child. She’d had to go
off her pills, and I didn’t pull out fast enough. My fault, but I’d accepted
it. But Melissa said there wasn't a future, and I’d asked if she meant for
Slopapotamus, which is what I’d taken to calling the hypothetical obligation,
or for us. She’d crossed her arms and said, “Both.” I remembered being sad and
angry, but if what I was reading was
right, she’d made the right call. There wasn’t much of a future for any of us.
The 7-11’s marquee read OPEN 24/7, but the
door was locked. A guy in a
7-11 uniform came around from the side of the building. His nametag said
Alex. “My goddamn key won’t work!”
“It’s cool.” Blake studied the
door. “I can get us in.” He and Alex played
with the lock, and Devin and I went to pee behind the dumpster.
“Weird thinking there could be a dead body
in there.” Devin zipped up his
I lifted the lid but found nothing unexpected.
We talked about
expectation, irony, and disappointment as we walked back to the front of the
store. Blake had managed to get the door unlocked, and they were already
Blake looked our way when the door’s bell
chimed. “Hey, Alex said we could
have all the old hotdogs on the Big Bite roller.”
Devin arched an eyebrow. “We just ate.”
“Doesn’t matter! We can’t just
let them go to waste.” Blake reached for a
bun. He garnished it with all the free toppings, then looked back and forth
between the hotdog and the bathroom. “Watch this.” Then he disappeared into the
bathroom. We watched the hotdog.
“Did he think someone was gonna steal that?”
Yet still I looked around the
room. What if the killer was hiding near the cereals? What if he was hungry?
We heard Blake sneeze twice, and then he stumbled
out and sneezed a few
Devin put a hot dog and bun into a styrofoam tray.
“These will outlive
I wondered if he meant the styrofoam containers
or the hotdogs.
Blake started talking to Alex about how good
the Spicy Burger Bites
are. Alex agreed but clearly wanted us to leave. He opened the register
and closed it. “I need to do inventory.”
But Blake would not shut up.
Devin and I realized a short story was being
written by whatever
weird, trickster god was in charge of the universe.
I asked Alex if he’d be mad if I threw the
hotdogs at passing cars.
"You can do whatever you want with them.
I was just going
to throw them away."
Blake stepped in front of the Big Bite rollers.
"I will eat every
single one of them." His pupils were enormous.
Devin put cheese and chili sauce on his hotdog. “Don’t
I’m doing this. I’m not even hungry.”
Blake explained to Alex how fine the girl on the
Cosmo cover was. He picked up a magazine from the rack at the
counter and pointed out her various attractive features. He knew her name and
her measurements and caught us up to speed on recent events in her life. He
told Alex about a website where he could
I grabbed a Spicy Big Bite and nestled it into
a bun with so much care and
precision, it might as well have been a test-tube baby. I added a thin
line of mustard like a racing stripe down the center. I placed some diced
onions near the back of the dog to make it look like a dragster’s engine.
I dolloped a globule of nuclear green relish in the middle to represent a
cockpit. I am becoming obsessive,
But then I realized the race car motif was all
wrong. I grabbed a napkin from the counter and
scraped the toppings into the garbage. I
had bigger ambitions. I added spikes of
cheese and chili. The cheese for desert, the chili for mountains, the onions
for the melting glaciers, and the relish for pine forests and nuclear waste.
“Alex, do you have anything that’s blue?”
“Windex,” he said.
“No, has to be edible.”
“Uhm. Guys, I appreciate you getting me
in the store, and you can have
those leftover hotdogs, but really--”
But I wasn’t paying attention. The hot dog
was alive. I bought a box
of toothpicks and a small pouch of cotton candy.
“And now you’ll leave?” asked
“Soon. Soon!” I stuck the toothpicks
into the Big Bite at regular
intervals and stretched the cotton candy like wispy clouds.
“Oh my God,” said Devin.
As if from heaven, we orbited this post-post-modern,
earth and looked down with pity and disdain.
Blake was still talking about the supermodel.
Devin stared at my
dog. "That's art."
I nodded assent, but words failed me.
Alex threatened to call the police, but we no
longer needed to stay
because they didn’t have any blue condiments for the water.
Devin kicked a rock in the road. It splashed in
a puddle. “All art is
I set my creation in the middle of the street.
Devin squinted at the dog, then looked down the
road. "No way. Needs
to be farther from the stripe.”
"That’s perfect,” I said.
Blake shook his head. "Nothing will hit it there.”
Then he walked
over to the puddle. “Wish I had my camera.”
“Look at that leaf, right next to that rock.
And the shadow from the neon
there. And the colors. This would make a great still life.”
I blew a laugh through my teeth. “Yeah,
and the cigarette pack and the
slurpee cup. And the oil rings. Just beautiful.”
“No, man, you just crop that shit out of
it. Look at the leaf! If you look
close enough everything is beautiful.”
He didn’t understand that the world was
on fire. I tried to tell him.
Then a car passed us. We hadn’t even seen
it coming. Its driver-side tire
crushed the hot dog into the pavement. Bread and meat and tire
tread. "Performance art," I said.
Devin nodded. "Allegory.”
“Goddamn, you’re right.”
Then I realized how vulnerable we were. We had
to walk near the car wash
and the drainage ditch to get back to my apartment. I wished I had driven.
While we walked, Blake and Devin resumed an argument
that had apparently
started before I was with them. I tuned in long enough to hear Blake say
something about unconditional love actually being predicated on conditions. I
studied the shadows. I thought about Jeremy Fisher from 8th grade, the last
time we had had a class together. I wondered if he had ended up in the local
community college, too, or if he'd just gone straight to some shitty job.
They’d found him dead at the car wash three blocks from my apartment. I thought
about the two women, both discovered in my neighborhood, one of whom was
pregnant. Then I remembered Melissa saying there was no future. I shook my head
to escape the bad thoughts.
No one else was out. The stoops were empty. Sometimes
cars would break the
silence, and I would look where their headlights shined for movement or shapes.
The trees and weeds grew in strange shapes, or the shadows made it seem so.
Branches were slithering tentacles, and I shivered in the summer heat.
I tuned back in to hear Devin say something about
the Platonic ideal, but
Blake wasn’t having it. “What do you think?” He looked at me. “Is there a real
that’s more real than this real?”
“Nothing’s real,” I said.
By then we were at my apartment, and we all laughed
to think we were not
dead. I was happy, anyway, to not be alone for the moment. Since Melissa had
gone, the apartment seemed too big. I always checked the second room to see if
her easel and canvases were still there, but they never were. I looked at its
closed door and chewed my lip. I hadn’t remembered closing it. I crept up to it
and swung the door open. Blank walls and an empty table. The closed closet
door. I reached for the knob but as my fingers touched the cold metal I decided
not to let whatever was in there out. “You’re being paranoid.” The sound of my
own voice startled me. I heard something move in the closet. “Leave me alone,” I
said to the door.
I grabbed three beers from the fridge on the way
Devin raised his bottle. “To not being dead.”
“Yet,” said Blake.
We clinked beer bottles and I nodded at Blake.
“How do you know this guy,
Devin smirked. “He’s OK. Too lazy
to be the killer.”
We all laughed.
We sat on the couch, and I turned on the TV. A
VHS of the movie Barton Fink played a continuous loop on
my old VCR. Whenever it reached the end, it would rewind and start over. I had
no idea how many times I had seen it, alone in my apartment, its presence a
Blake stood. "I know you don't really know
me, but can I use
"Sure." I wondered if some people
bathroom-use a privilege.
He pulled a baggie out of his jacket pocket and
shook it. White powder
settled in the corner. “Be right
The world spun momentarily into focus: "If you
dragging you back to the alley, and I am not
A minute later he came out of the bathroom and
sneezed. “What are
y’all talking about?”
Devin was saying that infinite love was impossible
in finite dimensions,
but that there was something beyond that. We talked about notions of existence
and meaning until Blake got bored and left.
“Don’t get killed,” I called
after him, but he had already shut the door.
“Isn’t it weird?” Devin looked
to the ceiling for a moment. “If this was a
story, and his arc was to get murdered on the way home, he wouldn’t know it.
He’d just think he was going home.”
I nodded. “It’d be easier if there
were arcs or threads or anything.”
Devin and I talked through the movie. The images
played before me, the
characters said things. The old writer and his lover. How I must have
disappointed Melissa. I said, “I wish we could know whether something meant
something or not. Perception is the fly in the ointment.”
On the screen, Audrey Taylor said, “That’s
chicken fat, Bill.”
Devin patted my shoulder. “It’ll get
Then the room seemed silent.
“You’d make a crappy nihilist, anyway,”
said Devin. “You should stick to
making wiener art.”
“Belief seems to do the trick for some people.”
Devin yawned. "Hey, I'll pay for coffee."
At the IHOP, we were seated between a family
of five and a couple of
cops. We tried to act normal and ordered coffee and toast. Our waitress
was the only woman in the world who could save the universe from its cold,
entropic pall. I told her so, but I used the word "pretty"
because words often left me when needed most. She rolled her eyes and
said, “Hey Dev.”
“You two know each other?”
“This is Susan. We had chemistry together”
Susan left to turn in our order, and Devin told
me he was thinking about
joining a monastery. I debated with him the advantages and
disadvantages of monastic life. It was either all real or all bullshit,
but even if it was all bullshit the illusion of meaning would be
Devin stirred his coffee cup. “Shrodinger’s
After the cops left, Susan lingered to talk with
us. “That was my last
table. Them and you losers. What are y’all doing this morning?”
Devin and I shrugged at one another.
Devin blew a sigh through his teeth. “We’ve
got nothing but exes and
"I have been up for two straight nights,
there is a killer on
the loose, Devin’s joining a monastery, and nothing makes a goddamn bit of
sense. Wanna go see the sunrise with us?"
The three of us drove up the interstate. Susan
scanned the glowing
horizon. “We have to hurry.”
Devin tried to convince her that we had all the
time in the world. “See, we’re actually driving south at
6:25 PM instead of north at 6:25 AM. We
have 12 more hours to get there.”
But she was far too clever.
Devin looked ahead. “Where are we going,
“I think the sun is this way.”
“A quest for the grail,” said Devin.
“The Holy Grail!” said Susan.
“That’s the one.”
We exited the interstate and drove into a residential
On this side of town the houses were big and the air smelled like flowers
instead of stockyards. I was wondering if I would remember this exact sensation
when I was older.
At the edge of the neighborhood sat an expansive
field, and in the middle
of that field sat an oil pump, raising and bowing its head like a blackbird
pecking for worms. We drove toward it but stopped when the ground started
to feel soft. We walked the rest of the way, careful not to leave Devin
behind. A sign on the pump said, "OIL WELL."
"That explains everything," said Devin.
I laughed and
traced the horizon with my eyes. The sun was just starting to creep above the
When I looked up Devin was kissing Susan.
Then Susan kissed me.
Devin kissed her ears and neck. I kissed
her lips. We all
kissed for a while, Susan alternating between the two of us. Then we
stopped and wondered aloud where that had come from. Susan started
We talked about what it was and
what it was not.
“Look!” Susan pointed out past the
edge of the field. The sun.
“Goddamn,” I said. “We almost
The sun rose like it did every day and we thought
it was spectacular all
of a sudden, how it didn’t have to be there and neither did we. It was
all improbable and terrifying and
beautiful, whether there was anything else or nothing. There was the sun, and
we were alive beneath it.
We drove back to the IHOP and dropped Susan off. She thanked us for being nice and not killing
her. We said it was our pleasure, but
that she should be careful in the future.
She looked up at the sky and squinted. “But
then I would have missed the
We watched her drive away, and neither of us said
anything. Since we were
in the neighborhood, we decided to go see what the hot dog had come to.
We parked in the 7-11 parking lot and noted that Alex was gone, replaced by a
woman with white hair and glasses.
We walked to the center of the street and looked,
but the hot dog was also
gone. All that remained was a grease spot. I reckoned aloud that it
was the ghost of the hotdog, the dream of the hotdog—.
Devin chuckled. “It is the reflection of
the ideal hotdog, so perfect we
can only perceive it as a monstrosity with our imperfect eyes."
At the edge of the road was Blake’s puddle.
The leaf and rock still there.
The cigarette pack and Slurpee cup, too. There was a killer, and the world was
on fire, but maybe it was just a matter of focus. I dropped Devin off at his
apartment and watched him hobble down the sidewalk. I drummed my fingers on the
wheel and wondered when the killer would strike again, if one day he wouldn’t
come for all of us, this killer or another. So many killers, and yet there were
I thought of my apartment,
the shell I had constructed to keep me safe, a
cocoon that no longer offered comfort. I imagined sitting on my couch, the glow
of the TV illuminating the room. Madman Mundt would be shooting the detectives
and shouting, “Look upon me! Look upon me!”
Beyond that, my apartment would be dim and empty, its short hallway
leading to a spare room that once held a future. The door would be closed, and
the room behind it, empty and not. The tentacled creature in my closet
demanding that I let it out again. Every time it asked it was harder to refuse.
I didn’t want to go home, even if there was nowhere else to go. I lit a
cigarette, pushed the creature to the back of my mind, and drove the streets of
my neighborhood. The sun was out and for a moment it seemed like there was
nothing to be afraid of at all.