This story appeared in
Carolina Quarterly, Spring 1991, Volume 43, Number 3,
There's a half dozen tables in this place, and in the kitchen there's six grills, each one with room enough for eight burgers. During the lunch and dinner shifts there'll be six of us waiting tables and cooking burgers, and the crowds'll be lined up outside and down the street, even in the rain. I've worked the graveyard shift and had people backed up at three a.m., even.
Say you come in for lunch one afternoon and you want a hamburger. You're out of luck. You sit at my table, you get eight burgers. I'll wrap 'em up to go, if you like, but the only time you can order a single burger is if I'm feeling generous and there ain't nobody waiting.
It's like a day about a week ago, this guy comes in, waits his turn, then plops himself down at my table. All he wants is a cup of coffee. Now, I could oblige him his cup of coffee, but it was going to cost him the price of eight burgers at that particular time of day.
"I'm not that hungry," the guy said.
"Them's the rules, Bud," I said. "Take it or leave."
"How'm I supposed to eat eight hamburgers?" the guy asked.
"You can feed 'em to your dog if you want to," I said. "But there's a line of people out there waiting for burgers, and you're taking up about eight burgers' worth of space."
"Fine, then," the guy said, shaking his head, digging into his pocket to check the local money supply, "I'll have eight burgers."
Then the guy sits there sipping his coffee for too long until I suggest the line of natives were getting restless waiting for him to leave, at which point he paid his bill, sans tip, thank you very much, and walked out, leaving eight burgers on the table. Hey, I'm no fool. I wrapped them up and took them home and ate them myself.
I make a half-decent income. I get two bucks from the till for every eight burgers, plus I get a couple bucks an hour, and I get to collect tips. I can run two or three groups through in a busy hour, so, like I said, the money's not too bad, unless of course you're an m.d. or one of them c.e.o.'s you read about in the financial press, they call it. I've seen some want ads for these placement services where the salaries start at like a hundred and fifty grand _ that's a year, not a lifetime. As best as I've been able to figure it, without pulling out all my old 1040s and actually tallying it up, I've been working for going on twenty years now and I haven't come up with that much altogether yet.
I remember my first job, I made two and a quarter an hour, that'll come to eighteen bucks a day, plus tax and tip . . . no, that'd be less tax, and I wasn't waiting tables then so there weren't no tips. Eighteen bucks a day for about 30 years, if you take the weekends off, would get you close to a hundred fifty grand, but even if you're still living with your folks you won't have nothing to show for it. And I ain't, and I don't, and that's not even counting the more than a few months I haven't had no income at all.
My first job I was a typesetter for a little newspaper. I'd just gotten out of college and I went to the newspaper to get a job as a reporter. They were having labor troubles at the time, the typesetters were out on what you'd call a wildcat strike, I guess, since they weren't actually members of a union. I thought I was being hired to write stories for the paper, but it turned out I was a scab. They sat me down at one of these old typesetting machines that spits out these long yellow tapes with little holes in them, then you stick the tapes into this typewriter kind of machine and it types out the type on this slick white paper. You had to type it onto the yellow tape first so the machine would be able to figure out when it had reached the end of the column, but now that I think about it, I recall you had to sit at the typing machine and decide for it where to put the hyphens. That's when you would see things like e-xpendable or metempsychosi-s in the next day's paper, except of course you wouldn't ever see the word metempsychosis in a newspaper. As a matter of fact, I've only ever seen the word twice outside of a dictionary, and I think the second time the guy had stolen it from the book where I'd read it in the first place.
I never intended to be working at a hamburger joint when I got to be my age. I never intended to be working at all.
I was one of them hippie types. Existence for the sake of existence. Love your neighbor. Respect your environment. Money isn't everything. It was a beautiful time, and we were beautiful people. And I wonder what happened to us. I know the particular neighbor I picked out to love, her name was Donna, didn't hold a common disregard for money, so it wasn't long after I'd settled in for two bucks and a quarter an hour that she went on to seek a better fortune.
Everybody wanted to live in the country. Live off the land. I figured I'd work a little while at the typing machines, save up some bread, and pick myself up a couple of acres somewhere. It was a tough decision. We didn't exactly believe in private ownership of property, but on the other hand we figured we could better protect the land than the current landlords. Well, I was in for a surprise, because I was to discover, as all the working class discovers if they didn't already know it, that once you've gotten on the treadmill you can't ever get off. You end up working so that you can make enough money to pay the rent and buy gas to get you to work, and that's about it, as long as you're car doesn't break down, and once it does you're in the hole for life like a sharecropper after a drought.
I think I really thought I was in love with the girl. She nearly broke my heart. I was even tempted to cut off my hair and try to get a real job, like selling life insurance, just to have the chance to make enough money to keep her interested. But I just couldn't do it. The morning after our last night together, she got up first, and I rolled over and went back to sleep for a little while, and when I woke up she was gone and there was a note on the refrigerator, held onto it by one of those little magnets with a plastic banana on it. The note said it had been nice, that she'd never forget me, but she was going to marry a stockbroker.
A couple of weeks later I got a letter from her, asking me if I could send her the horoscopes from the paper when they came in. The horoscope syndicate sent the horoscopes months in advance so you could put together the entertainment-type pages in advance of more critical deadlines like the noon news conference at the Board of Education or getting the list of yesterday's fender benders from the police chief. Donna gave me a post office box number to send the horoscopes to. I wasn't sure I wanted her to keep in touch with me that way, but I had this idea that sooner or later I could get her back.
I tried writing letters about how much I wanted to see her, how much our time together had meant to me, blah, blah, blah, but I never got anything back in response, except for the time I neglected to send out the horoscopes, for which I got a curt note inquiring why. So I resumed sending out the horoscopes until about a year later I got fed up and walked out of the job and right on out of town.
You know, one time I got feeling kind of nostalgic, so I went back to the newspaper office to see how things had evolved. I got to talking with this young sportswriter, and he told me there was some woman in town who was sleeping with him every once in awhile, in order to get the horoscopes when they came in. It made me realize what a chump I'd been _ I'd been sending them to her for free.
That was the last time I ever got nostalgic for that place.
Since then, bouncing around from job to job, woman to woman, dropping no roots in particular, making no lasting friends, I have occasionally wondered whether or not I came the right way, whether taking the path that was grassy and wanted wear was such a good idea. I'm having to confront the reality of growing up and growing old without ever accomplishing anything, and without storing up enough nuts for the winter.
It's like I'd always expected something to come along and rescue me. I would win a lottery, or have a rich uncle die and leave it all to me. Except I don't have any rich uncles. And most of the states where I've lived didn't have lotteries.
It's as if I'm still a baby in the crib, and if I wait long enough my mother will come in and pick me up.
If you believe in heaven and you live your life according to the rules, then you've got some hope that even if this world didn't work out so good, the next one's going to be better. But if you're mired in a one-world reality, where everything is physically ordained in a Newtonian sort of continuum, then you're fooling yourself if you expect to get paid back in spades in a couple of years just because you've kept your karma smelling rosey. If you're a good existentialist, then you've got to face it, this is it, and there's no point in being wistful about what ain't. It's just sometimes it gets a little hard to swallow when your bank account balance is always hovering around zero.
In other words, I'm a big boy now, my mom couldn't pick me up out of the crib if she wanted to, and where I'm at now is the product of my own choices, over which I have no real control if you get down to it but what the heck?
So today at lunch this lady in sunglasses comes in an plops down at my table, all by her lonesome, and orders a cup of coffee. You know, like deja vu.
"You gotta order some burgers, ma'am," I says, wondering if maybe she has a brother and they pull this kind of prank often.
"Okay," she says, "I'll take sixteen of them."
"Sixteen hamburgers?" I ask.
"That should do it," she says.
She doesn't look like she's the sort of person who can eat sixteen hamburgers, but if she's willing to pay the rent, I'm an equal-opportunity kind of guy. The folks waiting in line might not like it too much, but if they were in a hurry they wouldn't be at Eight Burgers, anyway. Eight Burgers is as much the experience as it is the food. Don't ask me, I don't understand what makes people tick.
The lady at my table is reading a newspaper. When I bring her her first stack of burgers, she inquires of me, "What's your sign?"
I eye her out of one eye, the left one, my right eye closed. This is just for dramatic effect, like as if looking at somebody with one eye closed really gives you any different perspective other than a lack of parallax. One-eyed girl watching ain't going to give you too much extra by way of insights, unless maybe you're using a telescope. "Libra," I says.
"Libra," she repeats, then she evidently scans the horoscopes until she comes to me, and she reads. "'Time to pull out that old lottery ticket'," she says, "'your fortune awaits'."
"Lemme see that," I say, grabbing the paper from her. I don't recall owning any old lottery tickets. Now, this woman is definitely some kind of prankster. My horoscope doesn't say nothing about a lottery, it says to "beware of arguments with spouse or family members" because it could lead to "opening old wounds that should be allowed to heal." It should say, "Beware of women in sunglasses." I'm more than a little curious, when she starts laughing, and of course I recognize the laugh.
I'm a little embarrassed with myself for not recognizing my life's biggest heart throb, but the predominent feelings I have are of wonder at what's exactly going on here.
"What're you doing here?" I ask her.
"Aren't you glad to see me?"
"Sure," I say. "Twenty years and twenty cities later."
"Have I changed that much that you didn't recognize me?"
"Your hair's a bit shorter," I say. She had long hippie hair when we were young, but now she's wearing it short like a woman trying not to let her age catch up with her.
"Yours is a mite shorter, too," she says. Touche.
"So what're you doing here?"
"I wanted to see you," she says.
"How'd you find me?" I ask, but what I'm wondering is, what do you mean, you want to see me?
"I hired a detective," she says.
I think a second. The guy last week who didn't eat his burgers.
"You still married?" I ask.
She nods her head yes.
"I ain't got no horoscopes for you," I say.
"I don't need them anymore," she says. "I've got enough money now."
This makes me sit down, right there at my own table. I'm so floored by the content of that statement, the concept of "enough money," that I barely notice she is talking in cryptograms. For one thing, I've talked with economists enough to know that no matter what you've got, you can always do with something more of something, and since everything has its price, then effectively you can't ever have enough money. Even more overwhelming, however, is the idea that Donna could have enough money.
"You must be quite rich," I say.
"Not rich," she says, "just enough."
This is even more puzzling, so I run back over what's just been said and try to figure out what the riddle is, let alone the answer.
"Are you ready to leave this place?" she asks me.
"I'm in the middle of my shift," I say. "Unlike some, I don't have enough money yet."
"Yes, you do," she says.
Now I figure she's harking back to old hippie philosophy, when I naively argued that there was more to life than money. "Love never did pay the rent," I say, wondering if it would have had it been given a little better chance. Then I realize there is an unruly crowd backing up outside the restaurant and I haven't even started cooking the second round of burgers. "You don't really need any more burgers, do you?" I ask.
"I'm just trying to buy your time," she says.
"It'll be quite a bit cheaper after work."
"I told you I can afford it," she says.
So I go back to the kitchen and drop eight more burgers on the grill. Then I come back to the table, where I see she hasn't touched the first eight burgers yet. "You want I should wrap these up?"
"Sure," she says.
"Ain't you even going to try one?"
"Okay," she says. She grabs one and takes a big bite. "This isn't half bad," she says with her mouth half-full of hamburger.
"Made it myself," I say with mock pride.
"How'd you like to cook for me all the time?" she asks.
"You opening a restaurant?" I ask.
"No," she says, "be my personal cook."
"You mean you've got servants?" I ask. She is doing pretty well. I envision late-night meetings behind the refrigerator after the stockbroker is socked in for the night.
"In our own place. Apartment or something. Wherever you'd be comfortable."
"Even a farm?"
"If that's what you want," she says.
I get the feeling she is about to explain it all to me when I notice smoke is coming out of the kitchen and my co-workers start yelling at me. My burgers are burning. The kitchen is more than a little bit of a mess. I've got to toss eight charred burgers, clean up my grill, and shoo the smoke out the kitchen door before I can get back to Donna, and when I finally get back out to the dining room there's four kids sitting at my table and Donna is nowhere to be seen.
One of the kids hands me a twenty. "The lady said this should cover her burgers," he says.
The girl sitting next to him giggles and offers me another bill. "She said this was your tip," the girl says. "She said she hoped it would cover your troubles." I take the money - a hundred dollar bill.
What to do? Do I hang around and wait for her to come back, or do I go out and comb the city in search of a long lost love? What if I go looking for her and she comes back and I'm not here? What if I stay here and she doesn't come back?
Will the hundred bucks cover my time off?
And do I want to find her, anyway?
As I stood with my hands in my pocket fingering the hundred dollar bill, the absurdity of that last question hit me. Even if I weren't interested in the mock security of a love relationship I never was sure I could trust, there's no doubt but that the real security of a nestegg of similar, and even denominationally bigger, bills bore a genuine appeal.
I began to daydream about life on a farm. Up before dawn to milk the cows. Busting my butt all day, sweating it out in the hot sun. This was not exactly the retirement I had in mind. I adjusted my daydream, brought in cable television, hired hands to till the little garden, a fence to keep the cows on the farm next door. This was better. Maybe I could handle a riding lawn mower to keep the grass trimmed around the house. I'd even tend the flowers under the front windows. After installing central air conditioning, I began to feel much more comfortable.
I was having a little trouble with a plumber when it was called to my attention that I was burning another batch of burgers.
"You trying for another big tip?" one of the other chef/servers asked me with a big grin.
"You're not going to have much of that hundred left after you pay for all these ruined hamburgers," said another.
The crowd began to thin out, and I let the other guys have most of the customers for the rest of my shift. It finally got to be quitting time without further incident, and without further evidence of Donna, so I scraped off my grill and hung up my apron.
Before I left, I picked up the morning's newspaper out of the trash and looked into the horoscopes again. As I recalled, Donna was one of them Saggitariuses, so I read her horoscope for a clue. It said something about mending fences with a business associate. I wondered if this had anything to do with a farm.
Then I stepped outside and took a big breath of cool, marginally-polluted air.
This beautiful new cream-colored Jaguar pulls up to the restaurant just as I come out the door. Donna hops out.
"Where's your car?" she asks.
I point to my bicycle chained to a no parking sign.
"You want to drive?"
"Sure," I say, taking the key. I conceal my glee. I've never been behind the wheel of Jaguar before. Hell, I've never even been inside one. The closest I'd ever been was to look at the engine of one in a showroom with the bonnet (that's what they call the hood on fancy sports cars) up. It had about two dozen spark plugs. This Jaguar could have four dozen spark plugs, for all I know, but it sure runs smooth, and it is only a matter of seconds before I'm zipping along a lot faster than the speed limit than I intend to.
"Why don't you have a car?" Donna asks.
"I had to get a new transmission," I say. "Then I had to sell the car to pay for the new transmission." I turn the interrogation on her. "Where'd you go?"
"I had to sell some stocks," she says. I wonder if she's talking about pieces of paper or cows.
She tells me to take the next right. "Where am I going?" I ask.
"You'll see," she says.
"How'd you manage to drive up right when I got off work? Are you psychic or something?" I ask.
"Just thorough," she says. "The detective, you know."
"I thought maybe it had something to do with horoscopes or something," I say.
"I don't believe in those things," she says.
I'm a little mystified again. "Then how come," I ask, "how come you got me to send them to you all those times. And how come you kept getting them from the next guy?"
She looks at me a little surprised. "Did you hire a detective, too?" Perhaps she is pleased to know I kept up my interest.
"Checked up myself," I say. I imagine what it would be like to have enough money to hire a detective. "But what about the horoscopes? Why'd you want them if you don't believe in them?"
"I don't believe in them, but some people do." She then explains to me her scam, interrupting her story with occasional directions to turn right or left. We are leaving the city lights behind.
The scam was an insider trading kind of a deal. It went this way. It seems that several of Donna's stockbroker/husband's clients were superstitious and based their investments on the advice of their horoscopes. Donna figured this out and started betting against them, hedging her bets on what the horoscopes were going to say, gaining the advantage of knowing what investments the clients were going to make before they did, so that sometimes over the course of a week or two she could turn a neat little profit, them all the while ignorant of what was going on and probably able to afford it either way (when you're rich money starts being something of a game, anyway), and it was probably worth the loss to them just to have Donna bat her eyelashes at them.
Unconvinced by the scheme, I press her for details. She explains how, handling the appropriate investments herself, she can anticipate certain investment decisions in such a way that one client might buy, then resell, a stock that is also in the portfolio of another client, who wants to sell it but will later buy it back, so that she just holds everything where it is until the cycle settles back to its original position, at which time she can skim the brokerage fees for the transactions that weren't really made, cover any gains made by either party, and cop the amount lost by the losing party.
It sounds like a good idea, I guess, witness the evidence, although I doubt that even twenty years' worth of skimmed brokerage fees could buy Donna's comfort. "Did your scam buy you this car?"
"No," she admits, "my husband did." It turns out her personal account was also bolstered by a right hefty allowance her husband gave her over and above the payments on her credit cards.
At any rate, she acts as though she's made a pretty good killing, however she did it, and I'm shaking my head in wonder when she tells me to turn into a driveway. I realize we're way out in the country after I drive a while on the driveway and don't get to its end. Finally we pull up to a house, nestled under a bunch of big, old trees. I can make out in the descending dusk that the house is surrounded by at least acres of rolling fields, which are in turn bordered by dense woods.
"How do you like it?" Donna asks.
"Looks real nice," I say. "Are you going to introduce me to your husband now?"
"This isn't his house," she says. "This is yours."
"I beg your pardon?"
"This is it," she says, "the farm you always wanted."
It may not be the farm I've always wanted, but I'm in no position to quibble. "Now let me get this straight," I say, so overwhelmed by this funny twist of fate that I can do little more than accept it as not out of the ordinary, "are you telling me you're giving me this place? Like, it's all mine?"
"Let's say 'ours'," she says.
"Are you going to come visit me on weekends?"
"What about your husband?"
"I don't need him anymore," she says.
This sounds somewhat callous. I suspect the day will come when she will no longer need me, either. I express the doubt.
"Why do you think I married him in the first place?"
Not out of love, obviously.
"I did it for you," she says.
"I always wanted to be with you."
"You had a funny way of showing it," I say.
"I wanted money," she says, (this I well knew), "and I knew you were never going to earn it."
She's got me there.