Carter watched the burger
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 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
meant fries, dill pickle, everything but the skewer and the
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
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
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
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
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.
* * *
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
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
* * *
"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?"
"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
"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?"
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.
* * *
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
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
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
cruel, quick laughs a flash of their real selves shining through
the office personas they spent all week polishing.
"You mean Mac,"
"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
More nods. Life did, indeed,
"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
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?'
* * *
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
said, in way of explanation.
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?"
"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,"
"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,"
"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."
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
"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
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
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
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
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"
"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,
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
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
"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:
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
open the main door, and, turning his bulk sideways to squeeze
himself into a space meant for families, oozed into Delecroix's
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
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
Jimmy gave Carter a quick
smile through the window as he made for his own imported luxury
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
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
"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.
"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
"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
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
"Right this way,"
he said, leading the huge man through the dining area to the
* * *
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?"
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
"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
"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
"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
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,"
"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 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.
the huge man said, between massive jawfulls of food. "Talk
"Enjoying your meal?"
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
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
"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
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
"Sure you do," Anne
said as she leaned on the hostess station.
"No, I do." Carter
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?"
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.