Double patty combos, plastic toys and $7.50 an hour- it’s one a.m. and these things bleed together.
My mind’s somewhere else far from the blur of people on the other side of the counter mumbling words from the sign above me. They snatch brown paper bags sodden with grease and I imagine that I’m back home in my boxers, watching shitty hour long documentaries that circulate forever on droning stations.
My mind oozes information I didn’t know I knew as I shuffle behind the counter, assembling burgers and filling drink cups till they overflow.
In the growing swirl of soft serve ice cream is the rise of the Roman Empire. In a splay of fries is the steel beams of the Industrial Revolution. Tongues swipe white cream from cones and I think of ancient civilizations that sacrificed people atop temples. They were feared warriors that disappeared without a trace, a tragedy to every historian and unmotivated individual who watches their history on cable.
I sleeptalk through a never ending line opposite me that stretches for seconds, minutes, an hour but then the monotonous shuffle of customers is interrupted.
The disturbance is a man with broken blood vessels spun like spiderwebs in the hollows of his eyes and a swollen split in his lip. He leans forward on the counter, in my face now. This guy’s not one a.m. anonymity.
The burger in his hand is sad and deflated, something I surely made. I try to decipher his words falling from his flying tongue but in the spray of saliva blasting like a shotgun blast against my face, I see jewels stuffed in sarcophagi.
He blabbers about roaches and disease, something invisible and filthy that makes people sick. He’s seen it, he assures me, ‘cause that’s how his friend in Tulsa died- ate something fucked up and ended up in the hospital shitting out his intestines until there was nothing left.
“Salmonella?” I mutter.
He glares with Rock ‘em Sock ‘em eyes, black and purple and draining yellow under the skin as busted veins try to heal.
“Yeah,” he spits. “There’s salmonella in this.”
I lean in closer over the counter so I can look at the burger in his hand. I actually know a few things about salmonella and only now do I realize it, all those hours watching The History Channel useful. It’s serious shit.
I’m staring at a sad patty and melancholy buns in vain when the words finally fall from my sleepy tongue- “Show me.”
I want to see the thing that wiped out so many lives, the tears of historians, the unsolved answers of tiny sleeper cells ready to tear unsuspecting patrons apart.
“Show me the salmonella,” I say.
Then he’s rambling again, something about how it doesn’t work that way, it’s too small for me to see, ‘there’s something wrong with you; You just don’t get it.’
“I saw a whole documentary about salmonella,” I say. “They think that’s what could have wiped the Aztecs out.”
He looks at me with real murder in his eyes but then he’s smiling, jagged teeth, deadly.
“Aren’t you smart,” his eyes rake down to the plastic clipped on my chest, “Kenneth?”
He hacks it like it’s an insult, my name. It lands on the counter and swirls viscous.
The burger’s still intact, no bite taken out of it. There’s nothing heinous I’ve never seen before stuck under it, in between the buns, on the very edge of the charred meat. I start to wonder what the scam is.
He doesn’t look like the type to sue, probably doesn’t know what the word means outside of a fifth grade definition. I don’t think I do either.
What now? I want to ask.
“What now?” I ask.
Mr. Cutthroat looks me up and down. “Can you promise me there’s no salmonella in this?”
I search the shadows of his many bruises for some kind of answer, like reading black tea leaves on battered porcelain.
“Yes,” I say because it’s my job to assure these things, “I can promise you there’s no salmonella in your burger, sir.”
He smiles when I say ‘sir’ like a disease. He smiles wider as he pushes the burger directly under my nose.
“Prove it,” he says. “Eat it.”
Glossy tissue paper tickles my lips. With every breath, I can smell the char on the edges of suspect meat. I wonder if salmonella has a smell.
I part my lips against the paper, breath making it tremble. He smiles like I’m making his night. His teeth glimmer like Edison’s first lightbulb.
My jaw aches as I chew. His chest heaves with laughter that rattles like insanity as dry meat is ground down to a paste that sticks to the backs of my teeth.
I swallow ancient death that hides in charcoal mush. He can’t help but wheeze out a laugh, dropping the burger on the counter and running a hand down his face with a look of gleeful shock. Then he’s gone out of the glass doors with nothing more than a splintered laugh. I stare after him as I’m told I’m now on fry duty by a manager that was mysteriously absent during the whole ordeal.
I sigh as I submerge a fry basket into a pit of oil- the eruption in Pompeii. My eyes slip closed to the caress of yellow spittle biting my arms. Behind sore eyelids, I’m not here.
I’m at home collapsed on the rough fabric of a decades old sofa, television static wrapped tight around me. I can hear the whispered audio of a History Channel documentary detailing the occurrence of a man who holds the key to the fall of the Aztecs in the pit of his stomach, a man who will fall from the top of a temple, a man who ate something terrible.
It’s two a.m. and these things bleed together.
James Ezra is based in Texas. She is working on a few novels and writing an anthology of strange short stories that evoke the feeling of licking a nine volt battery.