At this moment Clay would have popped his Mama for a char-broiled hamburger sammich and some French-fried potatoes. He was way past starving- he was hungry. He pulled into the restaurant parking lot, lowering his boot onto the brake, his 02 Ram pickup squeaking to a soft stop. 4:30 now on a Saturday afternoon and the people’s cars were cruising the miracle mile, buying it and selling it, rushing to get home and put it all together. Clay noted the bitter whine from the wheels, knew what it meant, that the brake pads were going, that it was only a matter of time.
He would see Jack on Monday.
“Can I help you?” said the voice, AM static from the box outside his window, and Clay turned to the menu board, impossibly complicated, glowing backlit with photos of fictional food, with Value Combinations that defied the laws of economics. He needed time. He needed time to think.
“Can I help you?” said the voice, with predictable impatience.
Clay pictured the boy on the other end. Teenager. Pants around his knees. Skinny, face like a Meat Lover’s pizza. His stomach growled.
“What’s your name, boy?” Clay asked the speaker.
“MY name?” came the reply, and Clay waited.
The speaker eventually spoke. “Jeff.”
Clay took off his cap and itched at his thinning hair. He was unshaven, the nostrils of his bulbous nose thick with hair. “You hang on now, Jeff,” he said, “I ain’t never been here before and I’m gonna need a minute to decide.” Clay added: “Over and out,” because he was hilarious that way.
“Let me know when you’re ready,” crackled Jeff, a Value Combination of disinterest and pity in his voice.
Clay was reading the menu board now, really reading. There were double-decker bacon burgers, or triple-stacked patty melts of indeterminate fish. There were Curly Fries, Iced Yumbles (van/choc/straw), there were Chicken Picketts and Barbecue Doublers. Cheese was always Extra.
Clay had been in the woods all day, twenty feet up a live oak, hunting deer from a lounge. Nine hours crouched in stillness had put the stiff in his legs, and the five ibuprofen he swallowed were taking their time. He had no trophy to show for his patience, hadn’t seen a goddamn thing except for the squirrels and a single fawn, strolling through the clearing between the trees, lingering to sip from a dirty stream, but Clay had no clear shot to-
“Helloooo...” Jeff’s sarcasm came clear through the speaker, and Clay opened his eyes, not realizing they had been closed.
“Is anybody there?” Now the kid was being smartass. “It’s been like... a long time. Are you almost ready?”
“Yes, Jeff, I’m ready. Are you ready?” Clay felt the surge of adrenaline he’d been saving all day, and he swallowed.
At the touch screen, watching Clay from the camera, Jeff adjusted his headset and leaned out the window. He could see the front of this moron’s car. It was a pickup, and ugly, studded with crud.
“I’ll have a hamburger with cheese, a French Fry and a large Coke. And I’m only going to pay one dollar.”
The customer spoke so fast that Jeff forgot to listen. He was thinking if Stephanie got his text and about the History report he had yet to start. He was fixing his odds of getting the car tonight. He was trying to remember where he left his name tag.
Jeff found his finger floating dumb above the keypad until he realized he would have to ask.
“Wait- what?” He clicked his belt box to Listen.
A noisy silence. Clay began again. “This is my order: A hamburger with cheese, a French Fry and a large Coke. And I’m only going to pay ONE DOLLAR.”
Now Jeff was awake. This was brand new.
“One dollar,” Clay said, disabling his social safeties, “Now hurry up, boy, before you piss me off.”
“Do you want a Number Two?”
Clay stuck his head out the window and spoke directly to the box, red-faced. “You heard my order. Now make my lunch.” This was no game, this was Clay hitting his limit. He threw on the radio, some ancient AC/DC.
“That will be $5.79- drive up.” AC/DC powered down.
“I said one dollar. ONE BUCK. That’s all I feel like spending today, goddammit! Now don’t fuck with me, boy!”
Clay waited, about to get out of his car when the static returned: “That will be one dollar. Drive up.”
He pulled to the next window, the beer-bottled backseat clanking over every bump. And there was Jeff near to what he’d pictured. Teenager, skinny, eyes a For Rent sign. Dark hair and acne furious, like he’d laid his face in the fryer. It didn’t matter. Nothing really mattered anymore. After lunch it would be the pharmacy for the prescription, and then maybe Shannon’s. Maybe. Maybe this would be the day.
Inside the building Jeff removed the patty from a burger, wrapping the two empty bun halves in foil, slipping it in the to-go bag, around the counter, where the guy couldn’t see shit. The soda cup was dark enough to disguise the ice water, and he lifted a single small French Fry- exactly as Clay had ordered- and dropped it into the sack. A baked potato as ballast, and he had to smile to himself. It might be miles before his artwork was appreciated, maybe not until the expressway. Maybe the left lane.
Clay threw a soiled single on the counter as he snatched the sack and soda.
“And some ketchup,” Clay demanded.
“It’s in there,” Jeff politely lied.
Clay smiled. “Keep the change, kid.”
And then the pickup sped out of the lot, brakes straining loud against the rotor.
Jeff found his name tag. It was behind the stack of cups Maria brought for him to stack. He clipped it to his chest and checked his cell phone- no answer from Stephanie yet. It was becoming a pattern: she’d keep him off-balance, playing a classic game of hide & seek that Jeff was too young to identify and counter. He couldn't understand it, wondered what was going wrong, why couldn’t she just give him the assurance that he desperately-
Clay pulled the pickup back to Jeff’s window, double-barrel shotgun already raised. He took just a moment to aim before firing, Jeff’s head exploding like a coconut completely. The brain was undeniable- pink pudding sprang like a cranial piñata- and the blood was liberated throughout the kitchen. There were specks and flecks everywhere- the cooks, the clerks, the customers... the window glass, the napkin stacks- even splattered on the basket of cooling French Fries, even now delicious like ketchup.
Jeff’s headless corpse stood at attention for a good thirty seconds, long after Clay had peeled off, long after the boy’s heart had stopped beating, and somehow, against every known law, there was consciousness enough for a final thought, one last “Stephanie” before the drop, before his next and final customer pulled up to the box.
“Hello?” said the angry female as the boy collapsed to the tiles.
“Is anyone there?”