by Gregory Adams

Food purveyors often seek to create a desire in the customer for more food than they can consume. Customers often look to food to fill some need in their lives. This combination will lead to spectacularly unsavory results for one manager and one customer.

D I S C U S S I O N  F O R U M  |  R E T U R N  T O  S T  O N L I N E

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Friday Night

Carter watched the burger go out.

The hamburger sandwich was huge. It contained not one, not four, but twelve pattiesover four pounds of ground beefall shuffled between layers of fresh-baked focaccia bread, lettuce, pickles, tomatoes, cheese slices, andjust to mix things up a bita heaping slather of a special house relish that used both green and black olives. The burger was too tall to stand on its own, and only remained upright on its bed of hand-cut steak fries due to the long steel skewer that had been run through it.

It was what Carter had asked for, but he didn't like the look of it. The cook was going to have to do better on the next one.

The burger was part of a promotion, and the promotion was Carter's idea. Here's how it worked: if a customer could eat that entire hamburger in less than an hourthat meant fries, dill pickle, everything but the skewer and the wax paperhe would get a coupon for another such burger gratis on a future visit to Delecroix's.

Carter had seen similar stunts at steakhouses with enormous steaks, so he knew that the gimmick worked but he had improved upon it. In steakhouses, if the customer finished the steak in a certain amount of time, their meal was free, but Carter's idea was better for the restaurant because the customer had to come back to collect his prize, and that guaranteed additional revenue from drinks and whatever the winner's companions ordered. No one, Carter reasoned, would undertake such a task without both an audience and several beers, so Delecroix's could count on a crowd both when the first Big, Big Burger was ordered, and again on the return visit on the rare occasions that someone could actually eat the thing.

However, no one would be ordering the Big, Big Burger, Carter thought, if that cook didn't get it together. Even with a casual glance, he could see that the patties were cooked to varying degrees of doneness, giving the burger's profile a 'painted canyon' look that Carter found unappetizing. Actually, he didn't like hamburgers much, but he understood people who did. That was why he was manager of Delecroix's Bar and Grille, where others, older than he, were still waiting tables or flipping burgers.

And not flipping them well enough. He'd have to check the kitchen and see what was happening in there. But first, he wanted be present for the delivery.

Delecroix's was a carefully constructed collision between a family style restaurant and a sports bar. Everyone came to Delecroix's: men looking for company while they watched the game and drank themselves stupid, families searching for a middle ground between fine dining and a burger shack, cocktail-swilling professional types from the office park across the highway, and there was always the overflow from the two chain restaurants that crouched in the nearby mall parking lot. Delecroix's was independently owned, but not too originalthe walls were hung with countless chotchkies and (mostly) faux memorabilia. The booths didn't get tablecloths and the tables that did have them sported a red-and-white checkerboard pattern that Carter was constantly expecting to receive a cease and desist letter about.

Delecroix's did well enough, but Carter expected more, and he kept pushing. The Big, Big Burger promotion was just another step in standing apart from the competition, and despite the less than stellar job the cook had done on this first outing, it seemed to be working. Carter followed the massive sandwich through a wake of oooohs and aaaahs as the waitress carried it into the crowded rear dining room, and he smiled at the small bubbles of conversation started all around him: 'Could you, could anyone, are you daring me, because I might…'

This was the beauty of hamburgers: a giant steak was a giant steak, and how much steak did people eat at one time, anyway? But hamburgers were made for binging. People underestimated them, thinking back to barbecues where they had dusted off a couple-or-three with a pair of hot dog chasers, or they remembered college road trips when they had gulped down a half-dozen 1/8th pound patties at some fast food highway rest stop.

This hamburger, the Delecroix's Big, Big Burger, however, was a different animal entirely. The picture on the specials menu didn't do it justice, and the diner wouldn't know what he had gotten himself into until the oversized serving tray arrived. In addition to the gastroduodenal monstrosity centerpiece there came a hearty serving of the spicy waffle fries, and the biggest pickle the chef could find. Truly, it would take an outstanding American to clean the entire plate. Best of all, that hamburger cost $30. Ordering one paid for five of them, so the rare chump Delecroix's had to give a free one to had already paid for it.

A loud cheer went up from a corner table: the burger had landed. Carter looked without appearing to look, and was assured of his own prescience.

Their first customer was just what he had imagined when he had created the Big, Big Burger promotion. He was a big man, not too old, but older than Carter, who would be 34 this coming August. Tall, heavy, with a thick neck, and broad shoulders, he had struck an odd balance between fat and muscle, so he didn't seem quite obese, but lord, he wasn't in shape. He wore his hair short, and Carter thought that maybe the man had played football years ago, before he had grown quite so large, back when he could still run. The big man wore a jacket and a tie, although the jacket had come off and his shirtsleeves were rolled up on his tremendous forearms. He was surrounded by friends or clients (Clients would be better, Carter thought; then he could come back with his friends), and their table was littered with empty pint glasses and appetizer baskets. Carter snapped both a glance and his fingers at a passing bus boy, and the new hire ducked his head and began gathering glasses.

The sandwich was set before him, and the man gave an appreciative, playful exclamation. The group whooped and hollered as the brave man comically stuffed a napkin beneath his chins. His thick fingers twittered excitedly over the sandwich, and he looked up, catching Carter's gaze with his own for an instant. Then he looked back down at the sandwich and went to work.

Success, Carter thought, as he left the scene and returned to the front of the house. The man would make an effort but there was just no way, not with the beers, pizza skins, nachos, and buffalo wings he had no doubt done his share in helping put away. Doing in the Big, Big Burger would be impossible.

Carter walked into a budding confrontation between the hostess on dutya pretty little grad-school drop out named Beverlyand a bachelorette party of twelve who were so drunk that Carter had to deny them further bar service. He did so forcefully. Carter had slept with Beverly a few times, and saw bailing her out as a chance to maybe do so again. The ladies left angry, but they left, and that was what mattered. Beverly gave Carter a small, wicked smile, but Carter didn't have time to bask in it: it was prime-time Friday night and Delecroix's was humming. As manager, he needed to be everywhere at once.

First there was a quartet with a $190 tab who didn't have a single valid credit card between the four of them. Then there was a pair of ten-year-old boys (twins) who kept ducking into the lady's room and hiding in the stalls. Add these small crises to the usual assortment of boisterous drunks, rowdy teenagers, and eternally dissatisfied elderly, and Carter had his hands full until closing.

When he and his staff had chased the last lingering group out into the near-empty parking lot, Carter at last had time to check with the kitchen. He was surprised and gratified to learn that three more Big, Big Burgers had gone out that night. Better still, only the first customer, the huge manhad he really been huge? Carter couldn't recall; Friday night shifts left him feeling like an overused bar raghad managed to eat the whole thing.

"Are you sure that he did?" Carter asked the waiter who had been working the rear dining room. "Are you certain that his friends didn't help?"

"Listen, dude," the waiter began. Carter straightened at the familiar tone. "I had nine tables, so I didn't sit and stare at the guy, but less than an hour after I served him, the plate was ready for pick-up, and I'm here to tell you, that burger was done. Gone. Looked like he licked the skewer clean, if you ask me."

Carter considered, and then said, "Did you give him the coupon?"

"Sure I did. And know what he said when I gave it to him?"

"What did he say?" Carter asked, not knowing why he was asking.

"He said, 'See you tomorrow night.' " Grasping Carter's look of disbelief, the waiter added, "I swear to god, that's what the man said."

"Was it a joke?" Carter asked. "Did the rest of his party laugh?"

"Oh, they all laughed, but that doesn't make it a joke."

"All right," Carter said, and he dismissed the waiter. Jimmy Munce, Delecroix's owner, had approved the promotion, but qualified his go-ahead with the comment that he hadn't invested in a restaurant to give away food for free. Still, two wins out of three tries should be considered a favorable ratio.

The waiter had hung up his apron and was on his way to the door when Carter called to him. "Don't call me dude," he said. "In fact, don't call anyone dude. Especially not customers."

The waiter gave him a thumbs-up.

* * *

Saturday Night

The giant man was back just before 7:00 pm.

Carter saw him come in. The man was dressed more casually than the night before (it was Saturday, after all) and looked even larger in denim shorts and a loose short-sleeved shirt than he had in his jacket and tie. Delecroix's was getting full, people were getting drunk, and some were getting loud. All six giant screens showed the game, but only the two in the bar had the sound on. The other dining areas were being smothered in a mélange of new pop hits and old FM favorites. Still, the noise of the crowd boiled up through the music. Beverly was working the front again tonight and had to speak up to be heard over the more than 50 conversations taking place behind her. "How many in your party, sir?" she chirped.

"Just me," the man said in a surprisingly high-pitched voice.

Bev smiled, tipped her pretty head in acknowledgment, and led him into the dining room. She looked like a small moon pulling a planet along after her.

He was too big, Carter knew, for a regular table. She'd need to put him in a corner boothusually reserved for tables of two or more. The door dinged. Carter turned, a family of five had just entered, the kids dressed in their best clothes and holding souvenirs from the Stars on Ice show playing in the civic center a few blocks down. Carter looked past them, through the tall lobby windows and into the parking lot, and saw that other cars full of families were angling into the few remaining empty spaces. He looked down at the seating chart. He only had a few tables left, and a lone diner eating a free meal was now filling their largest booth.

* * *

"Just water, all night," Anne said. Carter was closing out registers and stations, and Anne was giving him as much hell as a waitron in Carter's restaurant would dare give him, because she had been stuck with that giant man for two hours. She maybe gave Carter a little more hell, because they had gone out a few times. Dating staff was the only Delecroix's rule that Carter regularly broke. "He didn't order any beers, soda, anything at all, just sat there all night eating that burger. He didn't tip me, either."

"Did he finish it?" Carter asked, although he already knew the answer.

"Yes, and he wanted another coupon for another free burger." Carter could tell by the way Anne's voice dipped at the end of her statement that she'd given the man the coupon. It was also clear that she knew that he knew, but he asked anyway.

"Did you give him one?" Carter asked.

"Yes!" Anne said. Anne was a struggling actress, so talks with her could be dramatic. "How could I not give him one? He ate the thing, he wiped it out, and there was no one there to help him, and we needed that booth!"

"Why didn't you come and find me?" Carter asked. He wasn't looking at her, he was scrolling through the order numbers to see if any other Big, Big Burgers had been served that night.

"You were dealing with those guys in the bar," Anne said. Carter remembered. A bunch of aging husbands out away from their wives, in their cotton-kit shirts and pale khakis, welts of fat ringing their thick necks, had raised an embarrassing kind of hell in the lounge. Carter had been explaining the establishment's policy on serving more beer to middle-aged dipshits who have already had too much to them for the fifth time, when he had glanced towards the lobby and saw the giant man trundling out through the waiting area, maneuvering his bulk through the ten-o'clock just-out-of-the-multiplex crowd who were waiting to be seated. Trundling? thought Carter. Where did I pick up that word? He couldn't remember, but it was the one that fit. He remembered now that he had looked at his watch and realized that giant man had been taking up the booth for nearly three hours.

"Did anyone else order a Big, Big Burger?" Carter asked.

"Not in my section," Anne said, "And I'm not surprised. It's not appetizing, after you see that guy go at one."

"How do you mean?" Carter asked.

Anne made a face. "He eats it with his hands."

"Everyone eats hamburgers with their hands."

"Not like this," Anne said, her expression an exaggerated display of disgust.

* * *

Sunday Afternoon

Carter spent the first few hours of his Sunday shift wondering about the huge man. Could it have been as bad as Anne had said?

The night was off to a slow start, when Carter saw a party he recognized. It took him a moment's concentration to remember where he knew them from: six well-dressed young men, sports coats, ties and khakis declaring a relaxed professionalism that told Carter they were in sales. His liquor and tableware reps dressed in the same style.

Then he knew: this was the party who had come in with the giant man last Friday. Carter took a longer look while Bev walked then to a table. Now he was sure of it: these were the guys. They knew the huge man.

Carter was snapped out of his study by the sound of a throat being cleared. An older couple stood in the lobby, waiting. Cater realized that he was standing at the hostess station. "Two for dinner?" he asked. The man nodded as if he'd never heard stupider question in all his 60-odd years.

Carter checked the plan, took two menus from the hostess station, and said, "Right this way, please."

* * *

"Excuse me," Carter said, realizing how stupid that sounded even as he spoke. "You were here the other night with that… large gentleman. The one who ate our Big, Big Burger."

The realtor or advertising sales associate or used car dealerall of those businesses and more could be found along the highway that ran past Delecroix'sgave a spit of laughter at the name. All of his friends did the sametheir cruel, quick laughs a flash of their real selves shining through the office personas they spent all week polishing.

"You mean Mac," he said.

"Do I?" Carter asked, trying to seem in on the joke even while asking for an explanation.

"Sure, Mac," the guy said. "We called him Triple B. His name was Mac Berger." He said it as burger but Carter's orderly mind corrected the spelling.

"He doesn't work with us anymore," one of the others said.

"Doesn't work at all," added another, then they were all talking at once, trading quips, making witty asides, a pack of dogs struggling for some just discovered morsel of attention. Carter waited, and after a moment's chaos, the man he had first spoken toCarter was already thinking of him as the Alphagave a call for quiet and filled Carter in on Mac Berger.

"Yes, Mac used to work with us, but as he, well, expanded, people were put off by his appearance, so he couldn't meet his sales quotas," the Alpha said. "So we had to let him go."

"He really let himself go when his wife died," one of the others offered.

There were nods. Dead wives were not to be made fun ofnot this early in the evening, at least.

"Yeah, but that was like a year ago," the Alpha said. "I mean, life goes on."

More nods. Life did, indeed, go on.

"Yeah, eventually it got so bad they had to let the guy go. We saw you were running a thing called 'The Big, Big Burger,' and we just had to get our Berger and your burger together. So we threw him a little going away party." He looked around the table. "And he ate the hell out of that thing, didn't he?" he said, giving the table a loud slap. A brief storm of approving chatter followed.

The drinks came. Carter thanked the men and told the waitress to comp this round. He'd be back at this table in two hours, arguing with the then-drunk Alpha that he hadn't told the waitress to comp all the drinks for the evening.

Carter fought that battle in a daze, just as he'd met every challenge that arose that night. His nemesis was named Mac Berger? He had, in fact, gone by the nickname of Carter's promotional concept? They were both, in fact, called Big, Big Burger?

Carter had so thoroughly trained himself to avoid using profanity at the restaurant that even inwardly, he could only express his confusion at the coincidence as 'What the F is going on?'

* * *

Tuesday Night

Monday was Carter's day off. On Tuesday, he heard all about the giant man's next visit.

"Never again," Anne said as soon as she saw him. "I don't care if you fire me, I'm not serving that man anymore."

"And I'm not seating him," said Beverly, who had again been the hostess last night. Carter had been giving her lots of shifts in the hopes that she would come home with him again. Correcting her in front of Anne would be tricky.

"Tell me what happened," Carter said with a sigh. His unspoken message, 'I can't have a single night off without you guys screwing everything up' was delivered loud and clear.

Beverly's eyes flashedhe'd made her angry. "This guy, this giant guy, shows up at seven-thirty, just when the game crowd is coming in. He's dressed like a bum and smells like ass. He wants a table and I say I can't seat him because of his appearance."

"That bad?" Carter asked.

"Ugh!" Beverly said, in way of explanation.

"Double-ugh," Anne seconded. "But she seated him anyway."

"I had to!" Beverly said. "There were like ten guys behind him who wanted a table where they could see the TV in the bar. There was only about 15 minutes to kick-off and they were acting up. I tried to put the giant guy aside and seat them, but he started yelling at me."

"He raised his voice?" Carter asked.

"He yelled at her!" Anne said, putting a pitch-perfect stress on yelled. "I heard him all the way in the back of the second dining area. He demanded a table and said we were a bunch of crooks because he had a free burger certificate."

"Then the party of ten who were waiting started getting upset, and it was madness."

"So you seated him," Carter said.

"Yeah, in my section," Anne said. "He stayed for three hours, and we couldn't sit anyone else in there until after he left."

"What do you mean?' Carter asked. The rear dining room could hold over thirty diners.

Beverly exploded. "Haven't you been listening? The guy is a six-hundred pound hobo! He smells bad, he belches, he farts, he eats like an animal and is unbelievably loud while he's doing it."

"No one would take seats in my section," Anne said. "Bev led them back there and they asked for seats in another section."

"Or they left," Beverly said.

"Yeah, or they would leave. And I don't blame them," Anne said. "And the fat guy doesn't tip. He gets that free burger, water, and nothing else. He eats the thing like he's running a race, and then just sits there belching for an hour afterwards."

"He's disgusting," Bev added.

Carter stood mute. The idea that an entire section had been empty on a Monday night was too much to believe. Had he really hired such ridiculous people?

"And no one else ordered a Big, Big Burger besides him," Anna said. "Those ten guys who had heard him throw his fit sat in the lounge all night and kept saying that it was a scam, that someone had won a certificate and we didn't honor it, even though the giant guy was just one section over, smelling the room up and eating like a garbage disposal with arms."

"Why didn't you call me?" Carter asked.

"Because I handled it myself," Beverly said in a flat, crisp tone.

"You call that handling it?" Carter said.

"Yes," Beverly said, her voice cool. "If you think you can do better, you'll get a chance tonight."

Carter couldn't believe what he was hearing. "You DID NOT give him another certificate," he said.

"He ate the burger," Beverly said, her normally full lips pinched tight. "You wrote the rules."

* * *

The giant man was back at six-thirty exactly, just as Delecroix's was beginning to fill up with traffic from the office park across the highway. This time, Carter was waiting for him.

It was only by the man's size that he recognized him from his first visit.

The giant man hadn't shaved for days. His clothes looked slept in, and there was enough food up and down the front of his shirt that if Carter had been on duty last night, he might have declined him the honor of having finished the Big Big Burger.

"Table for one, please," the giant man said. His eyes were blurry and his breath rolled out from him in a tide of raw onions, dill pickles and chewed beef so rank that Carter flinched.

"I'm sorry, sir, but I can't seat you," Carter said as he stifled the urge to gag.

"I'll wait for the hostess, then," the man said, his tone still agreeable.

"Sir, you don't understand. Delecroix's is refusing you service this evening." Carter wasn't optimistic for a Tuesday night with no game on, but he didn't plan to give up the back dining room to some giant freeloader.

The giant man's eyes widened, then closed to narrow, suspicious slits. "Is this because of my condition?" he asked.

Carter's ears pricked up. "I'm not aware of any condition you may have, sir. It's due to your appearance. We ask that our customers adhere to a certain level of cleanliness"

"Do you?" the giant men bellowed. "I see exactly one sign on your door'no shirt, no shoes, no service.' As you can see, I have a shirt, sir. I am wearing shoes, sir. On what other grounds are you denying me service?"

Carter shuffled his feet, his hands upon the hostess station. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Bev and Anne watching him from the side dining room. Bev was grinning an evil, close-lipped grin.

Before Carter could answer, the man continued. "It's because of my size, isn't it? As I mentioned, I have a condition!" This last word near-shouted. Spit flew in a barrage. Carter flinched, then hesitated. That word againcondition. What were the legal grounds here?

The door dinged: a family of four came indad holding the door open for his wife and two daughters. Dad was wearing a casual leather jacket, but also a tie and slacks. The girls wore field hockey uniforms. Carter saw the whole picture in an instantmom and the girls meeting dad after a late night at the office.

Carter grabbed up four menus in a single swipe. "Sir, we're done here," he said as he moved to step around the huge man, feeling like Europa hurrying around Jupiter.

A hand that felt like a surgical glove stuffed with meat flew out and knocked the menus from Carter's grip. The giant man put his pumpkin-sized head in Carter's face, "This isn't finished," he said, blunt finger thudding off of Carter's Men's Wearhouse silk tie.

That's assault, Carter thought excitedly. I can call the cops now!

But the huge man was already leaving, turning his expansive body in a slow rotation that ended with him orientated towards the door. He stomped out, mumbling an overly sincere 'Excuse me' to the family that stood in the waiting area. The parents swept their children out of the giant's way, one moving to each side of him. The smaller of the two girls screamed and began to cry.

"I'm sorry about that," Carter said as he stooped to pick up the menus. His face was bright redhe could feel it burning in flushes of embarrassment and anger.

"That's all right," the father said as he hustled his family out the door, no doubt heading for the pizza chain that squatted across the mall parking lot.

"See?" Anne said. "It's not so easy, is it?"

Carter turned to face her. "No, Anne, it's not easy, but I did it anyway. That's why I'm the manager and you're still counting on your ass for tips."

Anne fired Carter a black look. Whatever she was mumbling about him as she stormed off was soft enough to be muted by the ding of the door as another group of customers came in.

* * *


"Now you need to tell me just what the hell you think you were accomplishing by throwing this guy out?"

Carter stood with head hung low as Jimmy Munce, Delecroix's usually absentee owner, tore into him.

It was just 10:00 amCarter had left less than seven hours ago, and had been awoken by the telephone at 7:00 and told to be at the restaurant by 9:30. His shift started at noontime.

"Now lookit, Carter," Jimmy said as he rested his bulky, but impeccably tailored mass onto one the booth tables. "I own four businesses and have plenty of lawyers, some I've had for years, I play golf with the bastards, and none of them would give me a, a what is it"he made a show of checking his seven-thousand dollar watch"a twelve-hour turnaround on a intent to file suit for…" He paused again, looking at the document that had been hand-delivered to him at his residence at 6:30 that morning. "To file suit for discrimination unless they smelled real money and a real case. That's means a case they can win, Carter, if you're not keeping up. They're only warning us so we can settle to make them go away! So what the hell were you thinking?"

"We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone" Carter said.

"Not the damn handicapped!" Jimmy shouted. "We have to be extra nice to those people! I thought you knew that."

"I did what I thought was best for Delecroix's," Carter replied.

"And how is getting sued best for us?" Jimmy shouted. "The man said he had a condition. And what's more, he had a coupon for one of those damn stupid freebie burgers I let you talk me into!" Jimmy looked at his thousand-dollar Italian shoes and shook his head. "We've been in operation here for eight years and you talk me into running a loss leader."

"I'll fix it, sir," Carter said, swallowing the urge to correct his boss that the burger wasn't a loss leader.

"No, Carter, no you won't fix it," Jimmy said, looking him in the eye. "You've screwed it up beyond your ability to fix it. I'll have to fix it now."

Jimmy set the letter down on the booth table he was half sitting on. His chubby hand dipped into his valise and pulled up another, far less official looking sheet of paper. "Now onto the other matter," Jimmy said as he held the single sheet of copier paper up and read the handwritten, ballpoint pen script there. "Anne faxed this to my main office. She says you've been talking about her 'ass.' " He let the hand holding the paper fall and looked at Carter from over his glasses.

Carter looked at the worn burgundy tiles on the dining room floor and fumed.

* * *

Jimmy was back by 6:30 pm. Carter was in the dining area, calming an elderly woman who had been served cold french onion soup. The soup was cold, toothe parmesan cheese that had been melted atop the small stone crock had formed a thoroughly unappetizing and wrinkled skin. The waitress insisted she'd delivered the crock hot but that the old lady had sat talking over it for so long that it had cooled, and now the old woman didn't even seem to want another, hot crock of soup, or the cold soup taken off of her bill, or even another hot soup that wouldn't appear on her bill. Carter couldn't figure out exactly what she wanted, apart from to complain at him for lengthy, abuse-soaked minutes, but then Jimmy called from the lobby"Carter, get in here for a minute,"and Carter had to go.

Seeing that her whipping boy as being called away, the old woman pursed her lips in dentured disappointment and began to complain about that. Carter was beginning an excuse to ease their separation when Jimmy called again, "Now, Carter!" and Carter left.

He passed by Bev, who was just starting her shift, who couldn't hide her pleasure at Carter's situation, and he also passed Anne, who kept her reddened face down as he passed. Carter couldn't say if she blushing from joy or shame, but he thought it should have been shameif she had any shame at all.

Jimmy was in a different silk suit than the one he had been wearing this morning. He stuck a thick hand out towards Carter as he approached and turned to talk to a smaller, balding man, also suited, but in darker, more-courtroom appropriate colors. Carter recognized the manhe wasn't one of Jimmy's lawyers, but Carter knew him from somewhere.

"This is our manager, Carter," Jimmy said when Carter stopped before them. The smaller man did not offer to shake hands, but only nodded grimly, as if Jimmy had just said 'This is all the rodent and insect matter we pick out of our salad ingredients during the washing process.'

"Carter, this is Mr. Blume. He represents the diner whom you felt obligated to turn away last evening."

Carter instantly placed the man. Mr. Blume was a successfulbut not too successful, since he was here himself, in person, rather than send some lesser attorney from the officepersonal injury lawyer, and his deathly serious face stared up at him from the back the phonebook they kept by the payphone, as well as from several billboards along the highway, asking 'Have you been injured at work? Mistreated? Harassed?' I need to keep this guy away from Anne and Bev, was Carter's thought.

"Now, I've invited us all here togetherand Mr. Blume has invited his client, isn't that correct?" Mr. Blume nodded again, his small, slivered eyes still fixed upon Carter with equal measures disdain and disgust. "So when he gets here, we'll have some apologies, and anyone who wants to can get whatever they want off the menu gratis,"Carter knew that he was not included in this offer"and we'll all get back to something much more enjoyable than litigation: great food."

Mr. Blume spoke up. "Yes, well, I must say that it's going to take more than a few french fries to get my client past the shame and humiliation he suffered at the hands of your rude and disrespectful staff."

Jimmy smiled down at the smaller man. "You might not say that if you'd enjoyed our chili cheese fires." Mr. Blume only scowled more deeply, but Jimmy was still chuckling at his own joke when the huge manthe huge clientpushed open the main door, and, turning his bulk sideways to squeeze himself into a space meant for families, oozed into Delecroix's lobby.

Carter watched in amazementand with some joy mixed in, he would have to admitas Jimmy and Mr. Blume watched Mac Berger come. Mr. Blume flinched when he saw his clienthe actually flinched, as if at some sort of near miss or a sudden explosion. Carter knew that Mr. Blume hadn't seen the huge man in person, that this was his first glimpse of him...

And the last twenty-four hours had not been kind.

The man seemed, if possible, even fatter. He was still wearing the same clothes from when Carter had first seen himgod, what was it, four days ago?with the same grease stains striping the front down to the belt line. His hair massed in filthy black globs atop his swollen, acne-crusted face. He was short of breath, and was breathing through his mouth, each respiration a rasping, nearly sub-sonic wheeze that was like a pressure release valve on the compost-rich vat of his bowels.

"Christ on a pony," Jimmy whispered. "Is this your client, Mr. Blume?" he asked as he put a hand into his jacket pocket.

Mr. Blume didn't answer, but he didn't need to. The huge man held up a huge hand; the grease-smeared Big, Big Burger coupon hung, sweat limp, from his fingers.

"Can I get my burger now?" he rumbled. "My free burger?"

Jimmy held his cell phone up. "No, you may not," he said as he snapped a picture.

"Carter, will you stand next our friend here so we can get some perspective?"

Carter took a deep breath and stood next to the huge man for just long enough.

"That should do it," Jimmy said. "Mr. Blume, you are of course welcome to stay and enjoy Delecroix's fine dining, but you'll understand that health code regulations require that I ask your client to leave at once. Also, that free meal offer I mentioned earlier has expired."

Mr. Blume remained speechless.

"I want my free Big, Big Burger," Mac Berger repeated. His diction was the neatest thing about him. He must have sounded like a deeply wounded college professor when Mr. Blume had spoken to him on the phone. A sure thing if there ever was one.

"I'm sorry, but that promotion has been discontinued," Jimmy said. "And there's no way I'm letting you eat in my restaurant. Now get out." He stuck his phone back into his pocket with one hand while making a shooing gesture with the other.

Mac Berger looked to his lawyer. "What about my case?"

Carter saw that Mr. Blume wanted to bolt for the door, to get in his Lexus or Lincoln or whatever luxury car his long history of 'slip and fall' cases had afforded him, but the door was lost to him, vanished somewhere behind his oversized client. Unless they wanted to use a fire exit, the three of them were bottled in until Mr. Berger had his say.

Mr. Blume wasn't answering, so Jimmy spoke up again. "There's no case anymore, sir." He said sir, but in a way that made it sound like Jumbo or Lardass. "Now please be on your way before we call the police."

The huge man lurched forward. Mr. Blume gave a small shout and took a pair of clumsy backwards steps, but Jimmy stood his ground as the huge man rolled up on him. Carter would think later that he actually heard a splash, as if the gallons and gallons of water that composed 60% of the man were sloshing around inside of him.

"This isn't finished," Mac Berger said in Jimmy's unshakable face. "You owe me a burger."

"I don't owe you shit, Jabba," Jimmy said. Then, louder, "Carter, call the police, please. Tell them we have a fractious customer."

Carter picked up the hostess phone but the huge man had already begun his long retreat, his movements as slow and ponderous as a cargo ship attempting a reversal in a small harbor. Carter, Jimmy and Mr. Blume watched him go, all staring, as Mac Berger took the front doors sideways and pivoted in the entryway, filling that small space with his flesh like a fetus in a jar.

When the man was gone, Jimmy turned to Mr. Blume. "So I guess we're done, right?"
Mr. Blume didn't answer. He just left.

Jimmy turned to Carter. "Did you see that?" he said, putting a smooth hand on Carter's back. "Damn, I'd seen some people who had let themselves go, but nothing ever like that." Carter couldn't think of anything to say, and Jimmy took the hand away. "Well, we made it through that one. Stay frosty, Carter."

"Will you be staying for dinner?" Carter asked.

"Hell no," Jimmy said. "Looks like I just got the night off. I'm going to enjoy myself." He started for the door, pausing to hold it open for a couple that was just arriving. They were both somewhat overweight, but Carter's reference for that term had just undergone a serious revision. These folks looked fine.

Jimmy gave Carter a quick smile through the window as he made for his own imported luxury car.

He never made it.

* * *


Mrs. Munce was a hysterical wreck. Carter had to keep the phone a good three inches from his ear to pick anything out of her sobbing. Occasionally, when she was gasping for enough breath to fuel her next outburst, Carter would shout condolences and assurances into the phone. "I'm sure that he'll be all right," Carter said.

That was an exaggeration. Jimmy Munce hadn't just been hit by the car when he left Delecroix's last night, he had been run over, multiple times, crushing his pelvis and leaving black rubber tattooed into his skin where his Italian suit had been shredded by the spinning tires. It hadn't been an accident, not a just a simple slip-up by some diner who had been overserved. Whoever had run Jimmy Munce over had done it quickly, quietlyand intentionally.

Carter had visited his boss in the hospital that morning, and Jimmy had been so swathed in bandages, so doped on pain killers, that Carter felt as if he had put on his best suit and driven across town to comfort a pile of white linen.

Now it was 6:30 pm. The restaurant was just starting to pick up. Carter was still wearing the good suit he had worn to the hospital. He looked more like a wedding guest than a manager, and Ms. Munce wouldn't let him off of the phone, so eventually he simply hung up. As much as he dreaded the coming shift, he had work to do.

Carter had to admit that he was always nervous going into his shiftalways had been, always would be. It was an anxiety he likened to stage fright. Didn't all actors get that? Even the old pros, the long established stars? Carter figured it was the same for him. No matter how many drunks he shut off, how many old ladies he soothed over, how many tightly-wound moms who were spending money they didn't have to take their kids out to eat at a place where the silverware wasn't plastic, he dreaded these confrontations each night anew.

But that wasn't the anxiety he felt tonight.

Carter had talked to the police today, been interviewed, right here at the restaurant, by a detective and a uniformed officer who didn't seem to care, or to understand, what was so obvious to Carter: that it had been Mac Berger, the huge man, who had run Jimmy Munce over, no matter what the police had said.

And Mac Berger would be back tonight, no matter what the police believed.

Worse, Carter was flying absolutely solo tonight: it had been over a year since he'd had to call Jimmy or one of his associates with a problem, but Carter always knew he could call, even if it was just to hear them confirm his course of action. He couldn't do that tonight. Jimmy couldn't even hold a phone, never mind talk into it. The lawyers and police hadn't listened, didn't care. They had looked at Carter like he was overly excitable, as if he might need some time away from the restaurant, but Carter knew that wasn't the solution, and besides, there was no one else. The waiters, waitresses, bartenders, busboys, assistant managers, cooks, were unable to do what Carter did. He couldn't trust them with the register keys, never mind the whole damn thing.

They were circling around behind him now: bartenders behind the central bar, waitresses moving between the lounge and dining rooms, busboys scattered throughout clearing tables and leaving new set-ups, hostesses leading guests to tables or checking up on various parties, all seemingly lost in their jobs while Carter stood in the lobby, waiting for Mac Berger, who the police assured him, couldn't possibly be coming back tonight.

The absurdity of the whole thing stung Carter like a physical pain.

"Mr. Berger has a pretty solid alibi," the detective had said, when interviewing Carter.

"It seems he passed away last Sunday," the uniformed officer added, watching Carter more closely than Carter could ever remember being watched in his entire life.

"That's right, he did," the detective confirmed with a check of his notes. "But you assert that he was here last night. With his attorney,"another glance at the pad"Mr. Blume."

"What does Mr. Blume say?" Carter asked, his head feeling light, as if he might be about to faint.

The policemen smiled. "He isn't being very cooperative. Client-attorney privilege and so on."

"My staff saw them," Carter said. "Mr. Blume and Mr. Berger both."

"They saw a big man," the detective said. "But you have to agree, it couldn't have been Mr. Berger, as he's in the morgue."

"You do agree with that, don't you, sir?" the officer added.

Both officers had been chewing on mint toothpicks they'd taken from the small chrome dispenser at the hostess section, and the toothpicks went up and down, round and round, as the officers looked at Carter, waiting for him to explain how Mr. Berger could be dead but also alive.

Carter sat stock-still, knowing that despite the strong afternoon sunlight that poured in through the colored glass of the rear dining room windows, that he was trapped in a kind of impossible nightmare. But even worse than that, he was talking to policemen about an attempted murder, and all his thoughts sounded insane. "Did you check the morgue?" he asked.

The blank stares did not waver.

"I mean, some kind of mistake might have been made," Carter said. He shifted in his chair, his good suit biting into him at the shoulders and across the chest. "It sure looked like Mr. Berger, the guy who was here," he added with a grin.

"Well, we assure you that it wasn't him," the detective said. "We don't make those kinds of mistakes."

"No we don't," the uniformed officer said.

"Mr. Berger's days of eating out are over. Guaranteed." the detective concluded.

That had ended the interview. Carter had promised to call them if the mysterious 'other' big man returned, but he knew already that there was no 'other' big man, and that the only giant customer who would arrive tonight wouldn't give Carter any peace until he got what he wanted.

Carter knewhe didn't know how he knew, but he knew it as a certaintythat dead or alive, Mac Berger was still eating out, and only Delecroix's had what he wanted.

* * *

He arrived as certainly, as massively, as the autumn moon, if the moon pushed a terrible odor before it and rode an equally powerful wave of melancholy.

"Table for one," he said, when he stood across from the hostess station, his piggish eyes fixed upon Carter. Carter hoped that his own gaze concealed the fear he felt deep inside, the fear of being completely alone, of knowing that this was his problem to solve.

"Right this way," he said, leading the huge man through the dining area to the largest booth.

* * *

No one would serve him.

"I can't," Anne said, on the verge of tears. "I can't stand the smell, and he... he…"

Delecroix's was slow, now. The tables that could be filled were filled but Carter had adopted a policy that kept the rearmost dining area closed off as a private lounge for their biggest customer. The restaurant was turning away more diners than they were seating, and although the guests who decided to wait sat impatiently on the benches in the lobby, they knew, with that animal instinct all hungry customers have, that the restaurant wasn't full.

Anne came to the hostess station in tears, and four groups arose together to turn in their pagers and try their luck elsewhere.

Carter took Anne by the shoulder and led her off to the drink station. "What did he say?' Carter asked, his usual anger dulled by his own appreciation for the effect the huge man could evoke.

"He asked how Jimmy was doing!" she said. She put a hand on Carter's sleeve, and he brushed it away with an automatic gesture. Anne looked up at him as if he'd slapped her.

"Oh, fuck you, Carter," she said, undoing her apron. "Oh that's right, that was my big mistake."

"Anne, no," Carter said, now touching her arm with his fingertips. It was enough to stop her efforts against the knot. Carter felt again the suspicion that Anne had really liked him, felt the guilt the suspicion always brought with it. "You take a ten-minute break and then watch the lobby. I'll wait on him."

"Why?" Anne asked. "Why is he doing this?"

"I don't know," Carter said. "But we need to give him what he wants."

* * *

"Where's your apron?" the huge man asked as Carter approached. His planetoid of a face suffered a series of small tremors and then broke apart into a smile.

"At the cleaners," Carter said, flipping open Anne's order pad. "Can I take your order?" The smell was bad, but not as bad as he'd feared it would be.

"I'll have the Big, Big Burger," he said.

"Of course," Carter replied. "And to drink?"

"Water. No ice." He looked Carter up and down. The smile was gone nowsome of the fun had gone out of this, perhaps? "Are you going to write this down?"

"I'll remember," Carter said. He'd forgotten to ask Anne for a pen. "You're my only table this evening."

"Seems slow in here tonight," the huge man said, surveying the dark, empty booths all around him.

"Will that be all?"

The huge man gave a slow nod, and Carter turned to go. "Hey Carter," the huge man called, "how's your boss doing? I heard he had an ack-see-dent."

"Fine," Carter said without stopping or turning around, violating at least three of the rules he'd suspended waitstaff for breaking any one of in the past.

"HEY!" the huge man shouted, his voice such an explosion that the lights above the booths jumped with the force of it. Carter stopped, his steps becoming a cringe. He turned around, startled to see that the hanging lights hadn't moved, that it had been in his imagination.

"Come here," the huge man said with a gesture. Carter approached as casually, as professionally as he could. "I have a coupon," the huge man said, lifting an arm thicker than Carter's leg.

The Big, Big Burger certificate hung limply in the huge man's grip. "Of course," Carter said, and he took a corner and pulled. The high-gloss paper slid greasily free, as if the man were sweating shortening.

* * *

The line cook didn't want to make the burger, so Carter told him to make it or walk. The cook began to untie his apron, and Carter relented. He spent the next 25 minutes in the kitchen, cooking patties, cutting onions and frying potatoes, the odors of every food item he touched weaving itself irretrievably into the fabric of his best suit.

The cooks and kitchen staff prepared other orders in the self-conscious silence that comes to a workplace when a manager intrudes. Carter had long known that no one liked him, here, and he had never cared, as long as they feared him.

But they were seeing his fear, now, and that changed everything. He felt like an early explorer who savages had mistaken for a god, who then cut himself shaving. He was bleeding authority, and he would never get it back.

* * *

"Took long enough," the huge man said as Carter carried the Big, Big Burger out. On the first night of the promotion, the order had come with sparklers and the waitstaff followed the burger, clapping and chanting 'Here we go, Big, Big Burger, here we go!' but Carter delivered this one personally, alone and in silence. The big man scowled, but did not mention the absence of fanfare as the massive plate, piled high with food, was placed before him.

Carter had considered adding even more fries to the plate, more meat to the burger, to pile so much food on there that even Mac Burger, the original Big, Big Burger, couldn't eat it, but didn't dare try such a ruse. All the fight was gone from him.

"Stay with me, while I eat," the huge man said.

"I can't do that," Carter said.

"I thought you said I was your only table?" the huge man said.

"That's true, but"

"Oh have a seat, Carter," the huge man said. "Or stand, I don't care, but stay here. I don't like to eat alone. That's why I keep coming back here. But since there's no one else in the dining area, I'm asking you to stay." Carter stood mute. The huge man leaned back, hands wide, and said, "Oh, what, is your boss going to find out? Can he even hear anymore? Can he even speak well enough to fire you? Or even move to sign your paycheck? Just stay there, Carter. Keep me company."

Carter stood.

* * *

Carter had never watched the huge man eat before, and it was true, what Bev had said. He ate like no one Carter had ever seen before.

"Say something," the huge man said, between massive jawfulls of food. "Talk to me."

"Enjoying your meal?" Carter asked.

The huge man looked at Carter with an expression of disgust, coleslaw dripping from his cheeks. "Say something intelligent, Carter."

"I hate you." He said it before he knew he was going to speak.

The huge man paused in his eating. "Now where am I going to go with that?" he said. "Start a goddamn conversation."

Carter stood quiet for a moment, working up his nerve. "You're dead, aren't you?"

Mac Berger paused in his eating. He stared at Carter and raised a napkin to his great hanging billow of a chin. "I don't know," he said. "I suppose I might be. Sunday it started, the night after the first free Big, Big Burger. That was to be my last meal. When I got home, I was going to end it all. I had it all worked out. I was going to use the car… " He stopped short and shifted in his chair, and his huge gut made that impossible sloshing noise once again.

"But I don't think I did. I don't know what happened. I don't remember Monday day, but Monday night came and all I wanted was a Delecroix's Big, Big Burger, and it's all I've ever wanted since.

"I know I've changed in the last week. I don't need to use the facilities anymore, for one. I don't need to sleep, but I can drive a car." This said with a particular relish. "Even though I don't need one to get around anymore. Even though I only have one place to go. And I don't feel anything, except hunger. And as long as I have these free burgers to look forward to, I have something to live for, if live is the word. Turning these coupons in is all the reason I have now. I don't care about anything else, anymore, except eating. It used to be a thing I enjoyed. Eating, I mean. A thing I took pleasure in, but now it's something I have to do. And if I don't do it, I'm afraid I'll disappear altogether."

"It would be better if you disappeared," Carter said.

"You might be right in that, Carter. But I'm not going anywhere." He resumed eating, and Carter resumed his silence.

* * *

Carter watched Mac Berger put food away. Somewhere in the other dining rooms, men were being overserved, mothers were letting their children run wild, the elderly were complaining in vain, but Carter couldn't do anything about them, now. He watched the huge man, insatiable as time itself, eat. He did, Carter saw, lick the skewer.

"All done for another night," Mac said, letting the skewer fall onto the empty plate with a clatter. "I think I'll sit for a while and digest, however." He punctuated this thought with a poorly concealed burp. "Anything else on your mind, Carter?"

Carter did have something to say. "I heard about your wife. I'm sorry."

The giant's expression fell slightly. "Ever been married, Carter?" he asked, and then continued without letting Carter answer. "Of course not. Who'd have a little shit like you? Who could stand it? How do you stand it, being with yourself all day?" He angled his face down towards the empty plate. "I loved my wife," he said. "She loved me. She loves me."

Carter thought that the huge man might be weeping. Mac Berger tried to speak, but the words were lost in the tremors of his misery.

"Excuse me? Carter asked.

The round head came up. "I said I'll have another."

"What?" Carter asked, looking to the water glass he'd kept meticulously full all evening.

"Not water, Carter," the huge mans shouted, knocking the glass aside with a wave of his massive arm. "I'll have another Big, Big Burger!"

Carter was bewildered. "That's not how the promotion works," he stammered. Was he actually about to invite Mac Berger back tomorrow night? But he had to do something, he couldn't go back into the kitchen, cook all that food, face the staff again…

"Here, I'll pay for it," the huge man said, rocking his sphere of a body on the bench so he could pull a slim wallet from where it was compressed in his back pocket. He split it open and threw two twenties at Carter. "I'll buy the damn thing. That's what you want, right? People like me coming in and eating themselves sick for a few bucks? Is that what you wanted, Carter? Isn't that what this is all about?"

The huge man kept shouting, and Carter realized that he was shouting back at him, screaming in a pitched voice, "I won't do it, I'll quit first, I'll leave!" Carter was straining with such fury against the palpable waves of emotion Mac Berger projected that tears ran from his eyes. Carter thought that Mac Bergeror whatever Mac Berger had becomewas also crying, but as Mac's shouting subsided, he realized that it wasn't sobbing he was hearing. The huge man was choking. Berger's eyes came open wide, two pale oysters in beds of pink flesh, declarations of panic clearer than any words.

"Oh my god," Carter said, rushing to Mac's side. "Stand up, I need to help you." Carter took the man by the armpit, his fingers sinking into a wet warmth that stung his sensibilities like an electric shock, but he held on, and he pulled

The huge man was stuck between bench and booth. The fit took deeper hold of him; he heaved, he convulsed. The table tipped over and Mac Berger fell over it, the edge driving deep into his massive gut, working like a lever against all the chewed matter that simmered there and bringing it back up the same way it had gone in.

All of it, at once.

Gallons of bile and food spilled from the huge man, more food than Carter had seen Berger eat, more food than any man could eat, even one as dedicated to the practice as Mac Berger. The vomit kept coming, pouring out like viscous concrete from a spinning mixer, coating the floor, splashing up to ruin Carter's shoes and trousers, flowing like some new Mississippi, a torrent rushing from the very heart of America.

And Carter hung on, telling the dead man it was going to be all right, that he was going to help him.

But Carter couldn't help him, and it wasn't all right: Mac Berger had been dead for days already, and whatever had been driving himhate, or fury or greedcame out with the rest of it.

* * *

In the end, Delecroix's closed.

Jimmy Munce recovered but closed the place while he was still in the hospital. The signs were taken down or covered in tarp and Delecroix's stood in the darkness at the edge of the mall parking lot like a forgotten Christmas gift, dazzling but dark. It stayed that way for months, a smoking crater of lost revenue in Jimmy Munce's holdings, but he couldn't bear to go near the place ever again, and when he did sell it, it was at a loss that would have shocked the old Jimmy, the one that didn't need a cane to get around and who could climb stairs easily.

Carter closed early that night of Mac Berger's second death, refusing seating to anyone else who came to the restaurant and issuing rain checks for free meals to anyone who had been seated but not served yet. These were useless because Delecroix's would never serve anyone ever again after that night, but Carter couldn't know that at the time.

He knew it was the last time he would work at Delecroix's. He had already quit in his mind. He was done with the restaurant business, done with being a manager of any sort, possibly forever.

The knowledge that what he was doing, he was doing for the final time elevated Carter, and he went through even the worst aspects of the final hours with the ease and confidence of a natural leader. The stress of the job had been expunged from him with the job itself.

The last few stubborn diners were still picking at their meals when the paramedics managed to wrestle Mr. Berger through the front door. Carter had asked them to wait, offered them free appetizers if they could just allow the last few hold-outs in the side dining room to finish their meals before trying to squeeze their bulky cargo out the door, but they only gave Carter a dirty look and called for more paramedics.

There were six ambulances and a fire engine parked outside by the time the emergency crews got Mr. Berger on a gurney and wedged into the entryway. Carter had to help them take the doors off of the hinges. Anne showed the remaining guests out of the side exits, but when they walked to their cars in the parking lot they saw Mac Berger anyway, stuffed inside of an impossibly huge black body bag and tipped at an angle in the entryway, trapped like the morsel of food that had clogged his windpipe.

* * *

By 10:00 pm it was all over. The paramedics were gone, and the restaurant locked up for the night. The incredible mess Mr. Berger had left behind him had been mopped up and the mop buckets hosed out. The mops themselves had been thrown away. Carter didn't care what that cost.

Anne stayed with Carter until the end. The other staff had all either slinked away or outright revolted when asked to stay and help clean up, and Carter found he didn't have the will to fight them. Only Anne stayed, and Carter was as grateful to her as he'd ever been to another human being in his life. They didn't speak as they cleaned the place, not until they had discarded the last mop and put the covers over the last soda machine. Then Anne quit.

"I quit, too," Carter said.

"Sure you do," Anne said as she leaned on the hostess station.

"No, I do." Carter said.

Anne looked at him. She was wan and pale and worn out. And she looked real, not like a waitress or one of his staff or even a pretty girl, but an actual person. Carter thought the look suited her.

"Now that we don't work together," he said, "do you want to go get a drink?"

"We're disgusting," Anne said, and they were, but Carter knew there were places that wouldn't care.

"Just drinks," Carter said, as Anne thought his offer over. He meant a bar that didn't serve food.

The very thought of food made him feel sick.



Copyright © 2009 Gregory Adams

A B O U T   T H E   A U T H O R:

Gregory Adams has had three other stories published on Silverthought Online. Only one of the four doesn’t feature a meal.

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