Maxine’s Bigger Burger
Photos by Sandra Cox Birchfield
Story by Thomas Vaughn
A lot of people said the restaurant had been called Maxine’s Bigger Burger. But there were an equal number who claimed the old sign had read Shirley’s Pit-Stop or just Shirley’s. There was hardly a person in the whole town of Westville over the age of fifty who didn’t claim to have eaten there. That’s one reason it was so strange that few could agree on the menu. Some said it served burgers only while others swore it had the best chicken fingers in town. But now, like most of the businesses in Westville, it didn’t serve anything.
Randy Carnes turned away from the abandoned restaurant and glowered up the broken street, taking a reluctant bite of his sandwich. Recent decades had not been kind to Westville. Most of the shops had long since boarded their doors. The only place that kept regular hours on Main Street was the liquor store. There was a Dairy Queen and a gas station about a mile up the road. Other than a struggling hardware store, these places represented the bulk of local commerce. Every day more of the town evaporated like it had never existed. People drifted away as if selected by some peculiar form of rapture that only progressed in installments. The ones who remained were truly left behind. Randy took another bite and shook his head. He could almost hear the death rattles of the American Dream.
Maxine’s Bigger Burger, or whatever it had been called, stood on the edge of downtown in an overgrown lot. Randy had stopped to eat his lunch in peace and quiet. The place looked like any other burger stand. It was fronted by glass and framed by stainless steel supports jutting from the concrete. All the windows but one were intact. It had a long crack running from top to bottom. The awnings had that tacky orange and white checkerboard pattern you would expect. A dozen parking places lined the front, each marked by rusted callboxes and empty menu shingles standing like sentinel gravestones. Crabgrass and pigweed buckled the ancient pavement as if some insistent force underneath the ground sought to undermine its very foundation.
Randy never paid much attention to the old building. It was just another place that passed by the window of his truck. It wasn’t worth a second thought. But today he still had twenty minutes to kill and there was nothing else worth seeing. He studied the cement picnic tables embedded in concrete that stood next to the entrance and tried to visualize people eating at them. He strained to conjure an image of a family, perhaps a smiling child enjoying a root-beer float. For some reason he drew a blank. Like so much else in the town it was just another place left to the gentle embrace of neglect.
He looked at his watch. It was time to go back to work.
The following day Randy returned to the parking lot of Maxine’s Bigger Burger to eat his sandwich. Just when he had gotten parked a county deputy sped by with his lights going. Policing was about the only steady job in the area since there was no shortage of crime, mostly domestic disturbances. The deputies spent their days racing from one side of the city to the other. Randy would have applied, but he had too many arrests on his record. It was nothing too bad—just some public intoxication charges and a DWI. But the department was a stickler for that sort of thing so Randy was stuck with whatever temp jobs he could find. At the moment he had a two month gig with the county as a traffic control employee for a road crew that was repairing drainage culverts. He measured the hours under a blazing sun, holding a sign that read “Go” on one side and “Stop” on the other.
The other guys on the crew thought it was strange that he didn’t eat lunch with them, but Randy was not particularly fond of other humans. He hadn’t always been that way. The disposition had crept-up over time. A lot of it coincided with his marriage to Tammy and the three kids that had unceremoniously squirted out of her womb before he knew what was happening. When his shift ended at four she would be waiting at the front door, ready to tear into him about some infraction one of them had committed as if it was his fault.
“Goddamnit woman! I just walked in the door! Let me get a beer and sit for a minute!”
“Oh yeah… Just climb right into that bottle while I raise these three kids of yours! You’re no better than your daddy!”
That was Randy’s life. The two of them never communicated without shouting. He would like to pop her one, but the deputies swore they would charge him the next time he retaliated. It wasn’t fair the way men got hauled off to jail after a fight. At least that’s how Randy saw it. Another arrest would cost him his job. Tammy knew the game was rigged so she picked at him with impunity. His only recourse was to storm out of the house into the night like a wounded bear.
Not that there was any place to go.
Randy studied the corroded sign-pole jutting from the walkway. It had once been painted white. The hooks from which the sign had hung were still visible. He looked back at the building again, nestled along a roadside overrun with weeds. It stood witness to the ongoing decay around it, unheedful of its own slow deterioration.
Then he noticed the awnings. They sported a faded, red and white checkerboard pattern. Hadn’t they been orange and white yesterday? He tried to remember. It was possible he was mistaken, but he didn’t think so. Randy had an eye for details. Then he glanced down at the glass panels surrounding the front of the building. It seemed to him that the crack had been on the east side and not the west.
He strained his eyes to peer through the glass. There was a slight tint to the windows and the August sun cast the interior in shadows. Still, he could just discern the outlines of an old cash register. The dining area was very small. There were only three or four booths and a row of about ten stools running the length of a stainless steel counter. Further back in the recesses he perceived a row of dormant fry-vats.
The sheer anonymity of the structure seemed to weigh on him. There must be thousands of places like this all over the country. Once people came here because the food made them happy. Someone depended on it for their livelihood. Now there was nothing. No more voices. No more laughter. The counters were no longer draped with bored employees watching the minute hand on the clock progress with intolerable slowness, marking the passage of another Tuesday afternoon.
When Randy looked at his watch he was five minutes late for the next shift.
With his sandwich only half eaten, he put the truck in gear and turned back onto the county road, trying to formulate a viable excuse.
The following evening Randy returned to Maxine’s Bigger Burger. He sat in the truck and stewed. The speeding ticket he had received the previous day sat on the cracked seat cushion beside him. They deputies caught him on his way back to the job site.
That wasn’t what had gotten him fired though. His boss, a guy named Domingo, smelled the beer on his breath that afternoon. Randy had turned the sign the wrong way a couple of times and led oncoming cars toward one another. It wasn’t any big deal. The traffic was moving so slow it was impossible to cause a serious accident, but Domingo went and made a federal case out of it. Of course that was nothing compared to the way Tammy lit into him when he got home. He left almost immediately, not trusting his temper. Now he sat and watched the sun set over Main Street.
Domingo really galled him. Randy didn’t consider himself a racist, but it was a hell of thing for a white man to be taking orders from guy whose parents had snuck into the country illegally. Randy didn’t know that for sure, but he figured it was a safe bet. He took a drag off the cigarette and a pull from the beer, staring at a rusted Pepsi sign hanging askance in the twilight. There was an old ice cooler sitting next to an abandoned 7-Eleven with a sun-faded picture of an idiotic polar bear on the side.
He shook his head as he surveyed the slow-motion carnage. The whole country was going down the crapper and no one was lifting a finger to stop it.
That’s when he smelled it. He had been so angry he forgot to eat. His first and only stop had been the liquor store to pick up a twelve-pack. Now he smelled food. His stomach rumbled.
All of the restaurants around downtown had closed, so it took him a while to identify the source of the odor. The road was dark except for a couple of streetlights and the flickering neon signs in the window of the liquor store. Then his eyes fell on Maxine’s Bigger Burger. There he perceived a light on the counter. It let out a soft glow, like a heat lamp.
For a moment all he could do was stare. He was a little buzzed from the beer, but not enough to be hallucinating. Looking up and down the street for any cars, he slid from the seat. The last thing he needed was a trespassing charge, so he had to be careful. He removed his cap, smoothing back his hair, then replaced it. The moon reflected off one of the glass panels facing the street.
He approached the windows and peered inside. The rotisserie was turning, each pan full of fried chicken fingers. He drew a little closer. Someone had placed food on the counter. The chicken fingers and fries sat in one of those plastic baskets with the paper lining. A lone light from above lit the basket. The meal entranced him with its sheer singularity. The batter on the chicken was perfect and the fries looked fresh. He leaned in a little closer. His stomach growled.
He had never seen a plate a food look so good in his life. It shown like the sun. It was so beautiful he almost wept. The basket was sitting in front of a stool, the red vinyl freshly polished. He pictured himself walking into the restaurant, sitting down and stuffing the chicken in his mouth. His hunger was so intense he didn’t stop to think about who had prepared the meal or why. Nor did he consider the fact that the sagging powerlines leading to the building had not carried current for many decades. Mournfully, he placed his hand on the glass that separated him from the basket. It was so close, yet it might as well be miles away.
He wasn’t sure how long he stood there. It was certainly hours. Sometime in the early morning he stopped by the gas station and picked-up a bag of powdered donuts.
They served as a barren surrogate.
The next afternoon Randy was driving up Main Street, ignoring the throbbing hangover. There was an emaciated man walking down the road. Randy had seen him many times, but didn’t know his name. It was probable the man didn’t have a permanent address. That didn’t really matter though. With so many people leaving, there wasn’t any shortage of housing for squatters. Randy pulled-up alongside and rolled-down the window.
The man cocked his head.
“You know who owns that place?” He nodded to Maxine’s Bigger Burger.
The old man’s eyes narrowed. “Why do you want to know?”
“I was thinking about getting into the restaurant business.”
“If you know what’s good for you, you’ll stay far away from there.”
The old man turned his back on Randy and continued up the street, his pants leg catching on the briars that grew from the foundation of the old drugstore.
“It ain’t right that a man goes his whole life without taking a taste of something good.”
Randy had been repeating that mantra a lot lately. When Tammy caught him muttering under his breath she said, “You’d better straighten-up or you ain’t gonna be tasting nothing but the inside of the pokey.” He ignored her. It wasn’t as if she didn’t try to goad him. At one point she even resorted to breaking his commemorative Civil War plates by throwing them against a broken-down four-wheeler in the backyard. But nothing she did penetrated the veil. His children meant less to him than a family of raccoons nesting in the crawlspace of the trailer. The only thing that mattered was Maxine’s Bigger Burger.
This time he brought along a wrecking bar. He watched as twilight insinuated itself into the ether over his head and waited. Some part of him knew it was only food, but it spoke to him on a level that he couldn’t begin to put into words. That night he parked under the canopy of a sickly elm that was struggling to force its way through the concrete. The last thing he wanted was to get arrested for breaking and entering, but there wasn’t any helping it. He formulated fantasies where the deputies represented a corrupt organization and the laws governing abandoned property discriminatory. The rest of the bootlickers in this town may have forgotten what it meant to live in a free country, but not Randy.
The hardest part was managing the anticipation. He tried to exercise patience, forcing himself to look away from the building. There wasn’t a lot to see. Trash littered the side of the parking lot. A starving cat hopped from a long disused dumpster, its ribs visible beneath matted fur. Randy watched the evening pass into night, smoking one cigarette after another.
For some reason his mind went back to the night his father took him to see the demolition derby at the fairgrounds. It had been his birthday. “Come on you little old bastard,” his father called in a rare good humor as they approached the stands. The county shot-off fireworks that night. Randy stuffed himself with corndogs until his stomach cramped. With the smell of gunpowder in the air and the sounds of revving engines nearly bursting his eardrums, the world reeked with possibility. For those few hours he felt alive and hopeful. He would be the master of his own destiny.
The revelry came to an end when the cigarette burned down to his knuckles. He cursed and flung it to the ground. Just like so many times before he found himself back in this decaying reality, sitting on the side of the road like a discarded fetus. The moths fluttered half-heartedly around a flickering streetlight. A rusted grocery cart lay on its side. But even as he was giving into despair he noticed a soft light coming from the inside of the restaurant.
This time he did not hesitate. His hands were shaking when he took-up the wrecking bar and approached the front door, giving only the briefest of glances up the deserted street. Again the air was redolent with the smell of an active flat-grill and fry-vats loaded with fresh cooking oil. He pressed his face against the glass. This time it was a burger. It sat in the basket with a generous portion of fries. The burger was stacked tall and cheddar cheese clung to the rim of the patty. His eyes widened when he noticed that the fries were batter dipped. The crust looked rich and crispy. On top of the sesame seed bun sat a tiny American flag on a toothpick.
It ain’t right that a man goes his whole life without taking a taste of something good.
Reaching for the door with one hand and gripping the wrecking bar in the other he prepared to break the window. With the electrical lines long dormant, there was little threat of an alarm. It was his intention to smash the glass, then reach inside and turn the latch. To his surprise the door gave under the pressure of his hand. He was too startled to move for a moment because he had clearly remembered leaning against it the previous night. But none of that mattered. He dropped the wrecking bar on the threshold and staggered inside.
The booths were surprisingly clean. Everything appeared to be in order. The stainless steel counter glowed under the single light that haloed the food. Once again the burger purged his mind of all other considerations. It was time for him to finally live. As he dropped to the barstool he felt tears of gratitude brimming from his eyes.
The burger was everything he had ever lost.
The burger was everything he never possessed.
He admired the sheen of grease on the outside of the bun, realizing that it was both buttered and toasted. Looking up he saw the row of condiments. The ketchup and mustard were in plastic squeeze bottles while the mayonnaise packets lay in a pile to one side. At first he couldn’t decide which one he would use first. He wanted them all. He wanted to get all of it inside his body.
Finally he reached for the red bottle with the vague intention of putting it on his fries, then hesitated. He stared at the bottle for a moment, puzzled. Why was he holding it? There was a recollection of an intention to do something with it, but the memory faded. Next he plucked the tiny flag from the top of the burger and brought it to the light. It stirred feelings inside of him, but he just couldn’t place them. Clearly it was a symbol for something, but now it sat between his fingers drained of all meaning. One by one his memories were escaping like minnows through a fishing net, even as he grappled for them.
He stood like a drunken man, aware that something was wrong.
“It ain’t right…”
He could not finish the sentence. Mustering all his concentration he tried again, but this time only shook his head in frustration.
“It ain’t right,” he repeated as if in final benediction.
When he looked down the burger was gone. All that was left was the lingering anticipation of that first bite, purloined by a force he couldn’t understand. Now the inside of the restaurant was dark. The vinyl was cracked and the smell of burned grease lingered like a persistence echo. A wasp nest hung from a water-stained ceiling tile and spiders had spun webs inside the empty drawers of the cash register. An oily grit covered everything.
He realized that his memories were being devoured one by one. That day at the fairgrounds was the first to go. He tried to concentrate. Soon he couldn’t remember Tammy or the faces of his children. Recognizing the threat he tried to leave. By the time he had walked halfway across the lobby in the general direction of the door, he no longer remembered his own name. That’s when he saw them. Some were lying on the floor while others were propped against the wall. One sat in a booth, its head resting on skeletal hands. Each of them were in various states of decomposition.
Randy stared mutely through the glass door, unable to remember why he had approached it in the first place. The concepts of inside and outside were now foreign to him. He turned and walked back into the gloom, an uncertain prisoner. For some reason he visualized a rotting tree stump with a fungal growth on the side. It was strange the way those parasites nourished themselves on decaying plant flesh in a protracted act of predation, picking them apart one nutrient at a time. Then the vision was gone.
Maxine’s Bigger Burger was everything you had ever lost and everything you never possessed. It was the last stop on the long pathway of broken promises.
Randy wandered in the darkness for about an hour, bumping into walls and counters as his remaining consciousness ebbed. Then, completely drained, he took his place among the other congregates—those senile worshipers of a past that never existed.