Black Petals Issue #97, Autumn, 2021

Win-A-Burger
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Win-A-Burger-Fiction by Glenn Dungan
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The Epistolean-Flash Fiction by Harris Coverly
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The Fall of Vampire Hunters-Poem by Matthew Wilson

97_bp_winaburger_mdavis.jpg
Art by Michael D. Davis 2021

Win-a-burger

 

Glenn Dungan

 

          Travis sighs, 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.

          Unsuccessful 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?

          And so 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.

          Travis 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.

          Mechanically, 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.

          Travis 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 supercomputer.

          “Barbeque,” 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.

          Travis assembles the order and slides the tray over to him, saying, “Have a Bronco Burger Day.”

          The 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.

          Travis picks 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.

          The 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.

          Fifteen 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 help you?”

          The blob, 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.

          A form 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 is.

          The blob 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 decipher it:

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, young boy.

          Travis, 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.

          He must 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.

          “Muster your strength,” she says, and this was enough for Travis to collect himself.

          “How can I help you?”

          “I desire a Number 4. With extra special sauce.”

          Travis 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.

          “Pardon my asking,” Travis says, “but it seems like you had a long day.”

          The angel blinks her many eyes. Then, with a gold-lipped smile, says, “How could you tell, child?”

          Travis shrugged, not expecting to get this far.

          The angel 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.”

          Travis did 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.

          Travis thinks 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.

          He says, “Don’t let a bad day ruin the rest of your week.”

          He recognizes 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.”

          It takes 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 the receipt:

          You are 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.”

          It 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.

          “Just okay,” 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 fries.

          Travis catches 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.


Glenn Dungan lives in 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

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