sips his Dr. Pepper, and looks at the giant, luminescent burger rotating in the
middle of nowhere. He’s eating one of the burgers, heated up from home and
taken on his drive here. He curses at himself when a piece of bun gets stuck in
his braces, and he hates himself even more when he has to turn down the music
in his car to get a better look in the rearview mirror in order to excavate it.
A canvas of picked pimples looks like burst pizza bubbles on his sallow skin,
and his hair is determined to be permanently greasy underneath the hand-me-down
Cowboy Cal’s Bronco Burgers cap, forever bent out of shape by the weight
of the wire that was just a little too small for his head.
with the burger excavation, Travis scowls, picks his nose, and flicks the
booger in the ashtray. It was a bad habit, he knew, but Audrey Winneburger, heiress
to the Win-a-burger fast food chain and prettiest girl in the world,
like, ever, would never go to prom with him anyway. So like, why did it matter?
Travis treks across the parking lot, watched by the stupid cowboy and his
dueling pistols. He nods to the previous worker as they trade shifts. The
starry night of the desert sky disappears into a miasma of old grease and the
sizzling of burgers on the grill. He navigates through the kitchen, past the
automated machines and bags full of soda syrup for the soda machine that like always
seems to break, like all the time.
sidles up the front counter, waving away a permanent cluster of flies as if
parting beads in a hippy basement. This burger joint is no larger than a one
car garage, and it looks especially small in proportion to the giant Cowboy
Cal, which was like the only, and biggest, source of light pollution in the desert.
The blanket of stars could not be seen from the glass perimeter, dominated by
the yellow-orange glow of the slowly spinning and creaking sign. Being at the
front counter, waiting to take orders, was like being in a fishbowl. He could
not even see any of the customers until they walked through the door.
Travis begins to refill the straws, which was the responsibility of the person leaving
their shift, but whatever, and opens a new bag of pre-cut French fries in
anticipation for the rush. He restocks all the little containers of sauces;
barbeque, ketchup, honey mustard, sweet n’ spicy, special sauce. He was in the
middle of prepping the buns when the bell chimes and announces a customer.
Travis wonders who it is going to be today; no one ever comes to Cowboy
Cal’s Bronco Burger unless they are coming from something or to something,
like weary travelers, and the like. If they want a real burger, they could go
to Win-a-burger, where the seats are padded, and Audrey sometimes visits
with her friends that are really mean but she’s not, and that’s why Travis is
so enamored with her.
The guest is
already at the counter. He wears a cowboy hat and is clicking the spiked heels
of his cowboy boots. In a way, he looks a little bit like Cowboy Cal.
Underneath the lips of his hat Travis sees one side of his face plated with
metal. He stares at Travis with a lopsided ruby eye and gnaws intently on a
toothpick. The smell of gunpowder pushes against the stale oil coming in from the
back, so Travis is, like, in an olfactory Venn-diagram of sorts. It was not the
worst smell, Travis thinks. One time some of the boys in the locker room held
him down while Big Bill, their dimwitted leader, farted in his face.
“A number twelve,”
the robot-cowboy says, his voice sounds as if dragged through gravel.
punches the order in and asks what sauces he wants. The robot-cowboy
straightens, his ruby eye flashing as a series of complex equations ask and
then answer themselves in the part of his brain that has become a
he says, after a second, but Travis already has the packets in his hand. It does
not take a supercomputer to determine that a cowboy (even a half-metal one)
would want barbeque sauce for his burger in the middle of the desert.
assembles the order and slides the tray over to him, saying, “Have a Bronco
robot-cowboy grunts and takes the tray. Pivoting, Travis sees blood spots on
the back of his vest, and within them a mosaic of cold steel and flesh. This
man was coming from something.
at an acne scab at the bottom of his neck and continues to think of Audrey
Winneburger. They were in science class just last week, and even though they
were not partners (one day Travis will get the courage to ask her) their
stations were adjacent to one another. She dropped her pencil and Travis gave
it to her, their fingers almost touching. She said thanks and he said no
problem. Had his been a different world, perhaps one where he had as much
confidence as Cody Malminner, the captain of the baseball team, he could have
said something bold and funny, and like, Audrey would have laughed and gone
home that day, thinking of how funny Travis was and maybe I should give him a
chance, because looks don’t matter, and like maybe sallow, acne-canyon skin doesn’t
matter too. Maybe.
robot-cowboy leaves and holds the door open for the next customer, so the bell
doesn’t ring. Travis is glad that he is here for this transition, because he
has seen the Flat-man before and has missed him when he is standing at a difficult
angle. The Flat-man is the name he has given to this figure which zigzags up to
the counter, bending at erratic 90-degree angles. The flat-man is a
two-dimensional figure, existent only on one plane of this realm, for their
dimension is strictly 2-D. Flat-man looks like the stick-figures Travis used to
draw in his notebook, which was full of other cartoons and comics that Travis
likes to draw. He is actually quite good at drawing and used to carry the
notebook everywhere. Hell, it would probably be with him now, right underneath
the counter, had he not dropped it in the toilet when Big Bill gave him a
swirly last week. The Flat-man does not talk, but seems to understand the
nuances of ordering, and Travis understands this of Flat-man. The Flat-man
takes one paper thin arm and points to the screen above Travis with all the
orders. Travis looks over his shoulder, nods, and then proceeds to assemble a
tray of still-to-be configured to-go burger containers. Travis arranges them in
a variety of colors on the tray, and then slides it over to the Flat-man, who
bends to inspect the meal, straightens to attention, and slaps the tray away,
all while emitting a body language of self-righteous disgust. Travis centers
himself with deep breath and proceeds to assemble a new tray of little
French-fry bags and some printer paper from the back. He presents it to the Flat-man,
who then bends his two-dimensional, featureless face in approval and takes the
tray to one of the seats. Travis proceeds to clean up the fallen tray,
confirming his theory that there are two Flat-mans (Flat-men?), one
which likes the thin carboard and the other that likes the even thinner printer
paper. It is a 50/50 shot every time. Travis sneaks a couple glances as the
Flat-man rigidly bends onto its seat and proceeds to eat, shoving bits of the
printer paper into where Travis assumes is its mouth.
minutes later the bell chimes and Travis snaps to attention. The sing of the
French fry fryer recedes into the background, an ever-present hum. He scratches
a boil at his neck, careful not to pick at the dried pus encrusted around it.
“How can I
more like a living gelatin, makes no sign that it acknowledges Travis’s
presence. It is slightly luminescent and smells a little like glue. The Flat-man
makes no acknowledgement of this new guest, and the blob offers no attention to
the Flat-man. Light refracts off some parts of its bouncy body like an oil
slick. It looks to be more poured than grown, as if born from a toothpaste
tube. In its gelatinous figure parts of misshapen bones float in stasis like
bits in a fruit cake. The bones are vaguely simian, as if someone has drawn the
bones from memory. Travis wonders what life-form this blob is, or if it had
eaten a humanoid creature and was digesting it right before his very
near-sighted eyes. It is a living lava-lamp and moves as sluggishly.
appears from its rotund shape. A semblance of a limb with a single, wiggling
finger, pointing to the menu looming above Travis like a watchful eye.
a number four, please.
no mayonnaise though, i'm very allgeric. although i do understand if you make a
mistake, for you are a young boy. what are your dreams i wonder?, i wish you
well. i would also like a diet orange soda, please. it is bikini season.
Travis gulps, afraid of how to,
like, communicate this snafu. He is actually pretty good at Spanish, passing
with some of the highest marks in the class, not that anyone would really know.
Travis’s father considers good grades not as an accomplishment but a duty,
nothing to be celebrated, only completed. This was alright though, for Travis
often found reprieve in Spanish class. The other kids are usually
first-generation, their extended family miles across the border into Mexico.
They are too busy worrying about themselves to make fun of Travis’s boils or
his long nose or his yellow teeth. He wanted to take Italian and impress Audrey
Winneburger, though. Her whole family takes a private jet to Vienna every year,
and it’s really a talk of the school which of Audrey’s friends get to go on the
trip with her. She’s so generous. Travis was close, just this past winter, to
joining her and her friends. In study hall he was assigned in between Trixie
Darling and Monica Herring, who were really good friends with Audrey. She
walked down the row, giving formal invitations to Trixie, skipping over Travis,
and then Monica. She walked down the row and asked Cody Malminner to come on
the trip. They’ve been hanging out a lot lately before that and now they have
lunch together quite frequently. Maybe next year, Travis thinks, when they all
come home from their first year in college and maybe run into him getting,
like, gas or something and Audrey will see that he really was the most funny,
charming guy in high school and like, it’s alright Audrey don’t worry, but then
Travis looks at the blob and wonders how actually good his Spanish really
pulls out a second arm from its body. Some of the strange bones pull along with
it. The blob reaches out its new limb and touches the register, leaving a
slight shimmer on the monitor. With its other arm it forms a three-pronged
antenna, bends two tines, and waits for Travis to mimic the motion. Then the
blob puts its finger on its recently sprouted antenna and Travis understands,
feeling a little stupid for having had to be told this. He places his finger on
the blob’s limb, ignores how rubbery it feels, and receives a psychic supercharged
sound like WEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE but somehow is able to unfold and
No worries, young
boy, I’ve been
there too. You know, when I was just a tadpole, that’s what we call them from
my parts. You know, like slang. Anyways, when I was a young boy I had hardly
the brain to understand any tongues, and was so afraid of looking foolish that
I hardly tried at all. Anyway, enough of my jabbering. I would like a number
two please, and please hold the mayo, in case you had not understood that
before. If so, please disregard this redundancy of commands. You are not a
machine, you are young boy. A young boy indeed. Oh, and a diet orange soda,
feeling slightly nauseous, assembles the meal, mayo withheld. He wants to speak
more of the language but loses all concept of it, like the waking moments after
dreaming. Travis makes a fresh fish filet for the blob, simply because that was
such a strangely intimate experience they shared, yet something pulls at the
depths of Travis’s emotions in a way that made him feel whole yet slightly
uncomfortable. As he slides the meal across the counter, he notices the blob
has overpaid. Before he can correct the blob, he watches the organism slowly
raise the tray over where its head would be and split like a giant, shimmering Venus-flytrap,
where it drops the entire tray into its gaping maw. It was a surprisingly clean
process, and the Flat-man at the neighboring table still makes no
acknowledgement. Instead, all the Flat-man does is erect itself like one of the
wacky-inflating tube men outside car dealerships and saunter out of the joint,
giving Travis a polite wave that looks as if a human tried waving to a baby
wearing oven mitts.
The rest of
the night is slow, as it usually is in the early morning. After the blob leaves
and Travis inspects the area to make sure none of its biomatter encrusted on
the seats, he gets to stocking, unpacking, and even has a burger on the house,
even though his boss does not let the workers do that.
He has a
couple guests come in. A reptilian woman who buys seven number 8’s and demands
them uncooked came in around 10PM. Not long after her, a literal gas cloud consisting
of what appears to be a portal to a far-away nebula floats in and asks for
three large refills of diet cola, communicating through what Travis could only
receive as orchestral music for a very specific brand. Then, at around 12AM,
just when Travis is finishing his own ending duties to help transition for the
next worker, a final customer appears, much to Travis’s chagrin.
squint his eyes, pulls the stupid cap over his brows. In the light is the
silhouette of a womanly figure, her arms outstretched. Little beads float about
its billowing cloaks, as if the creature has its own orbit. The light recedes,
revealing a lithe woman with long blonde hair cascading down to her hips. Her
skin has the quality of porcelain. Six wings fold themselves tightly behind her
back. A multitude of crystalline blue eyes along her arms stare intently at
Travis and this does not disturb him. Silver glitter dots her porcelain cheeks
and she wears what looks to be a bishop’s cap which goes over her eyes, molding
to the bridge of her nose. Travis finds he cannot speak to this guest, for she is
too beautiful, and yet he is not self-conscious. She waits patiently in front
of the counter, beads continuing to orbit.
strength,” she says, and this was enough for Travis to collect himself.
“How can I
“I desire a
Number 4. With extra special sauce.”
assembles the meal. It is policy to give the customer only one additional
packet of sauce when they ask for extra, but Travis adds an extra one on top of
that because he wants to. He slides the tray across the counter and feels bad
asking for payment. Wordless, she raises an eyeball lined porcelain arm and
reveals the appropriate change in her delicate palm. She waits for Travis to
pluck the money from her hand. It feels strangely tender for him to do so.
Travis puts the money in the register and notices the angelic figure has locked
up. The eyes on her arms have reddened, looking forlorn and at the floor. When
starting this job Travis was told not to ask questions of the guests other than
what they want for a meal. However, her utter radiance envelopes him like a
cocoon, makes him want to appeal to the better part of himself.
asking,” Travis says, “but it seems like you had a long day.”
blinks her many eyes. Then, with a gold-lipped smile, says, “How could you
shrugged, not expecting to get this far.
tilts her head, the locks of her hair shifting like the scales of holy
judgement. “My celestial partner of 60,000 years asked for a divorce today.”
not know angels could get divorced, or rather, he never thought about whether
they could or could not. He thinks of how sad his father was when his mother
abandoned them. It was about ten years ago, and they moved to a much smaller
house, the absence of his mother haunting the halls like a sickness. He got up
in the middle of the night to get a glass of water and found his father in his
pajamas, sitting on the still unpacked kitchen floor, an empty bottle of whisky
at his feet. Just go, Travis, his father said, just go. And so
Travis went back to bed, and told himself he would never forget what it was
like to see someone in such emotional pain and to be so helpless.
of the only thing he could say to this angel at this moment, a culmination of
every combination of syllables he has spoken in his life, every second folded
in and cinching into the nexus of an hourglass: Before and After.
“Don’t let a bad day ruin the rest of your week.”
it is stupid thing to say to this celestial being who probably has a far
grander perception of time than he, but it always makes him feel a little
better when he says it to himself.
The angel freezes,
sheepishly blinks her many eyes, and smiles again. “Thank you.”
Travis considerable will power not to watch the angel sit and eat. It is like
watching a piece of art in motion. Instead, he finishes his closing duties,
becoming so engrossed with his closing tasks that he did not notice the angel
leaving. When he goes to bus her table, he sees a note written on the back of
a good person, Travis. Not because you knew what to say, but because you had
enough bravery to care. You will make someone very happy someday. It might not
be tomorrow nor the next day, but that day will come. I promise you.”
is written in gold script
that refracts light. It was just a receipt, but for whatever reason Travis folds
the paper and puts it in the pocket of his jeans. The note feels warm and heavy
against his thigh. He finishes his closing duties, fixes himself a
complimentary Dr. Pepper, and then nods solemnly to the next burger flipper on
his way out, who asks how the shift went.
Travis says, “nothing special.”
It is around
1AM, and he has school in about six hours. Tuesday nights are challenging, but
sometimes they aren’t. Travis walks across the empty parking lot, the glow of
the Cowboy Cal’s Bronco Burger an alien miasma behind him. His sneakers
crunch on the desert sand, kicking past littered burger wrappers and soda cups.
He tosses his apron and hat into the backseat. His car smells like stale French
a glimpse of himself in the rear-view mirror, looks at the simulacrum of a
pepperoni pizza that is his sallow face, and instinctively begins to pick at
the numerous zits that materialized from this shift’s spittle of grease. He
stops himself, feels the weight of the angel’s nice words, and instead grips
his hands on the steering wheel, looking out to the blanket of stars and the
universe in motion.
Brooklyn, New York City. He lives in a Venn-diagram of design, 70's pop
culture, and sociology. More stories can be found on his website: whereisglennnow.com