Black Petals Issue #106 Winter, 2023

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The Thing in the Yard: Fiction by Vincent Vurchio
A Forest Green: Fiction by Logan Williams
Clown Safe: Fiction by Taylor Hagood
Home Delivery: Fiction by Jon Adcock
Judith and Bobby Save the World: Fiction by Stephen Tillman
Many Wee Undead: Fiction by Marco Etheridge
Meat Pie: Fiction by Anna Koltes
Mexican Coffee and Burgers: Fiction by Fred Zackel
Leaving: Fiction by Roy Dorman
The Ghost of the Perfect Hotdog: Fiction by Mark Miller
The Illustrated Woman: Fiction by Jen Myers
Thrice in One Sitting: Fiction by Justin Alcala
In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning: Fiction by Gene Lass
AI Self-Mortification: Flash Fiction by Christopher Henckel
Correct Mistake: Flash Fiction by Eric Burbridge
A Moment of Inertia: Flash Fiction by Sean MacKendrick
Get Your Kicks on Route 666: Flash Fiction by M. L. Fortier
Let's Do Lunch: Flash Fiction by Hillary Lyon
"Three Wishes": Flash Fiction by Ronin Fox
Woodsman's Revenge: Flash Fiction by Jada Maze
To a Crow: Poem by Michael Keshigian
Estranged: Poem by Michael Keshigian
At the Terminal: Poem by Michael Keshigian
Angler's Nightmare: Poem by Michael Keshigian
Last Thirteen Steps: Poem by Kenneth Vincent Walker
Murderous Words: Poem by Kenneth Vincent Walker
My Childhood Snapshot: Poem by Kenneth Vincent Walker
With Vampires About: Poem by Kenneth Vincent Walker
The Zombies are Loose: Poem by C. Renee Kiser
Lil' Toe Dipper: Poem by C. Renee Kiser
Scattered Pieces: Poem by Andrew Graber

Mark Miller: The Ghost of the Perfect Hotdog

106_bp_ghostofperfecthotdog_hlyon.jpg
Art by Hillary Lyon 2024

The Ghost of the Perfect Hotdog

Mark Miller

 

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 who’s the killer?"

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 pants. 

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 inside.

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 more times.

Devin put a hot dog and bun into a styrofoam tray. “These will outlive us.”

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 know why 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 see everything.

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, I thought. 

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 Alex.

“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, edible, Big-Bite 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 failure.” 

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.”

“Why?”

“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 back.

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?”

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 distraction.

Blake stood. "I know you don't really know me, but can I use your bathroom?"

 "Sure."  I wondered if some people considered bathroom-use a privilege.

He pulled a baggie out of his jacket pocket and shook it. White powder settled in the corner.  “Be right back." 

The world spun momentarily into focus: "If you OD, I’m dragging you back to the alley, and I am not calling anyone." 

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 better.”

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 comforting. 

Devin stirred his coffee cup. “Shrodinger’s God.”

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 existential crises.”

"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, anyway?” 

“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 neighborhood.  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 earth.

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 laughing.  "Whoops.”

  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 missed it!”

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 sunrise.”

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 always survivors.

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.

Mark Miller is a freelance shepherd living in Chicago. His absurdist novels, The Librarian at the End of the World and The Two-Headed Lady at the End of the World await the end of the trilogy.