Green Hills Literary Lantern

 

 

 

 Fast Food Horrors

 

Reality shows are all the rage on TV at the moment . . .

but that's not reality, it’s just another aesthetic form of fiction.

- Steven Soderbergh

 

The restaurant had been empty for months. We turned on the TV set that was fixed to the wall and channel surfed until we found what we were looking for. Margot, Patsy, and I had plenty of time to watch Fast Food Horrors. The reality show starred Celebrity Chef Gordon R. Crank. Crank was a big shot. An ex-footballer from the UK, he was built like a tank and had more energy than a truckload of Red Bull. When he quit the sports profession over a sprained ankle, his teammates walked with him, and together they opened a diner out of the blue. Crank tried his hand at cooking and took the culinary world by storm with his signature breakfast dish: a scone topped with a duck egg. A cookbook, 3 Minute Breakfasts, followed. After he became famous he ditched his staff, sold the diner, and opened a fast food place in the United States. He became head chef and owner of Crank’s Donkey Burgers and was the first cook to be awarded three Michelin stars for a burger joint, which reportedly sold hamburgers at one-hundred dollars a pop (one-hundred and fifty with cheese and two-hundred for the Super Donkey—a burger with lettuce, tomato and pickle.) In Fast Food Horrors Crank shared his secrets of success with failures of the fast food industry. He’d barge into their businesses and tell them how to run it. When Crank spoke, people listened. His show was inspiring, as he’d materialize out of the sunset from coast to coast, and arrive on the troubled scene.

In college, Margot, Patsy and I were inseparable.  Three years after graduation, our dream to be part of the trend and open our own fast food restaurant was realized. We pooled together our graduation money, and with financial help from Margot’s father, we bought a seedy place in east L.A. because it was cheap. We found a teenage runaway, a Mexican named Gonzalo Gonzalez, hanging out at the beach. He had chiseled features and grit that belied sensitivity.  Patsy fell for him instantly.  Gonzalo chain-smoked and wore a red bandana around his head. He spoke no English, but Patsy was fluent in Spanish. We never dug into his past, but we took him under our wing and crowned him our head chef. In lieu of paying him, we let him live in the cellar of the restaurant.

We named our place Burger Without a Bun because it specialized in burgers without buns. Salad and celery sticks or lime Jell-O were offered on the side. Since modern day consumers were obsessed by cutting carbs out of their diets, we figured people would be more inclined to frequent our restaurant than any other burger joint in town, and they did. Burger Without a Bun was deemed the It Girl of burger places according to someone’s high school newsletter. But now, three years later, it was yesterday’s news.

In the Fast Food Horrors episode that aired that day, an Italian immigrant named Guido operated a fast food pizzeria called Guido’s. The place boasted a kids menu box of mini fried pizza with a side of mozzarella sticks and a milkshake. After three faithful years of sweating over deep fat fryers, Guido was losing profits and customers. Chef Crank paraded up the cobblestone walkway in a wealthy New England town that was as remote as a snowstorm compared to the crap neighborhood where Burger Without a Bun resided. He entered Guido’s and took a look around.

“Ghastly,” he said in his breathy Brit accent. Margot let out a breath of disgust, and Patsy and I couldn’t take our eyes off the brawny bloke who was a ray of sunshine and hope in the ramshackle setting. He approached the counter and ordered the signature kiddy meal from the cashier, Gabriella, the teenage daughter of Guido. She nearly wet her pants at the sight of him. For us, his expert opinion on the grub was the focus of the show. We loved to watch other restaurants produce the same tasteless crap that we produced.

Crank poked the pizza with his index finger. The crust was petrified, he confided to his viewers, and the topping was cold and goopy. The bag containing the mozzarella sticks was grease-stained, and the milkshake was sour. As he glared into the camera, we knew deep in our hearts that he was speaking to us.

Crank saw enough. He summoned Gabriella to his table. She sauntered over with bells on. He insisted that she touch and taste the food. She picked up a limp mozzarella stick, held his gaze, and took a bite. He handed her the milkshake and said, “Now wash it down with this.” She sucked the creamy liquid through a straw.

“Gross,” she said, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand.

When he approached the Italian owner, Guido himself, Crank let loose. “You bleeping bleep,” said the television set, “what the bleep are you running here?”

Guido, dumpy with broken English, defended his food. As usual our hero got the upper hand. He ransacked the refrigerator like a crazy man on a mission, eggs cracking onto the floor, and picked up a tub of what looked like mounds of cellulite. “What the bleep is this?” he said. At first Guido pretended he had no idea where it came from. Then we learned the contents of the sauce were full fat mayo mixed with mascarpone and lard. After Guido deep fried the pizza dough, he would slather the sauce on top, cover it with processed cheese slices and throw it in the microwave. The television set was on a tear.

“How could you bleeping serve this bleeping bleep to children?” The camera honed in on Gabriella, standing nearby, horrified, as she covered her mouth with her hands.

“Oh, sure,” Margot said to the girl in the TV set, “like you didn’t know?”

Guido told Chef Crank to go bleep himself and Chef Crank told him he’d gladly go bleep himself after he gave Guido a piece of his bleeping mind. Crank and Guido exchanged expletives like a string of firecrackers going off, and Crank slammed Guido up against a wall. Fretful music thrashed in the background as a narrator told us to stay tuned.

Gonzalo emerged from the basement with a cigarette dangling between his lips. He pulled up a chair in time to witness Chef Crank storm out the back exit of Guido’s. As predicted, he returned that evening dressed in his whites. Guido was obliging because he wanted Chef Crank to buy him a ton of cool stuff. Not only did Guido cop a new brick oven, Chef Crank handed him his recipe for pizza sauce made from sundried tomatoes and capers. “Now,” he said to Guido, “you can charge your customers a bleepload more.”

After Guido’s successfully hosted a kindergartener’s birthday party, Guido gave Crank a rugged man hug to thank him. Patsy handed us tissues. Crank marched off into the starry night after one hour of inspections, revamping and bleeps. The happy ending caused our hearts to plummet: the television restaurant recovered and Burger Without a Bun remained sick. In an offhanded remark that must have been expressed dozens of times throughout the season, Patsy said, “I wish Chef Crank would fix our place.” Margot was inspecting her manicured nails; then her head shot up.

“Why not?” I said. We’d found our solution. Chef Crank would put Burger Without a Bun back on the map.

It was rumored that Chef Crank secretly harbored a degree in psychology and fixed personal issues between staff. It wasn’t fact, but it was plausible according to what we saw. Not only would a reality TV show put us back on the map, it would mend our unwell friendship. I sought excuses that caused our collapse. Brainless acts.  We’d freeze the burgers causing the flavor to relent to cardboard, and the oil in the fryer was never changed. We never ate our food.  We’d take out Chinese from across the street because it was better. Our place was a shit hole, but it had always been a shit hole. In the past it brought customers in, so it’s not like the walls suddenly deteriorated.  But Margot was parsimonious to the extent of ruin. Blame Margot—she ran the show. In the three years since she graduated from UCLA, you’d think she would have developed business savvy.

SHAX network owned Chef Crank, so Margot went to their website and outlined our predicament in the online application. She uploaded a photo of the three of us—a daisy chain of damsels in distress in front of Burger Without a Bun with Gonzalo on his knees at our feet. The SHAX network replied that they did not believe our situation was dire enough to warrant the help we’d requested compared to the hundreds of other applicants. However, since the show’s ratings hit an all time low, they figured the scenario of three hot blondes and a Mexican boy who shacked up in the cellar of a burger joint was the elixir the ratings needed. SHAX warned us that if we did not comply with Crank’s advice, the viewers would hate us. Not only would our business be screwed, but we’d probably get death threats on social networking sites because the national public liked Chef Crank better than they liked us. We’d have a crappier reputation than before, in which case we’d might as well file for bankruptcy or slit our wrists. They’d dispatch their messiah immediately.

Chef Crank was due to arrive in one week.  Instead of tidying up the place, Margo sat on the beach tanning herself, and Patsy took off for a manicure and a pedicure. I slumped on the couch watching TV lest I’d burn my fair complexion, and Gonzalo’s whereabouts were Gonzalo’s business.

Unlike the sunny episodes we’ve seen, it was an overcast day. Margot, Patsy, and I waited outside for our knight in shining armor. He zoomed in on a motorcycle with the SHAX van trailing closely behind. Reality sank in: Chef Crank was here and for the next few days he belonged to us.

Two cameramen and the sound crew began setting up as Crank took off his helmet. Patsy flipped her hair around asking how she looked, and Margot rolled her eyes. “Oh please,” she said, “he’s human. He takes off his pants like everybody else.” And according to some tabloids, way too often.

“I’m Mike,” one of the cameramen said, “and that over there is Jim.” Jim was adjusting his camera lens. “Just pretend we’re not here,” he said.

“Where’s our script?” Patsy said.

“We don’t have a script,” Mike said. “This was a last-minute gig.”

Mike stepped aside as Chef Crank made a beeline toward us. Jim followed him steadily, and suddenly we were rolling.

Chef Crank was larger in person than he was inside our TV set. He wore a black T-shirt and blue jeans. He didn’t notice the façade, a brown disk painted on the window that was supposed to represent a burger. We introduced ourselves as Margot, Patsy, and Corey. He gave us each a hug and a kiss. He squeezed me longer than he should have by the look on Patsy’s face. He smelled like toast. Celebrities smiling from the glossy pages of cookbooks don’t come with a scent.  People do.

“Whoa,” he stepped back. “What are three sexy blondes doing owning a burger joint?”

Patsy’s cheeks turned beet. “Why don’t I take you inside?” she said in a tone I wanted to punch.

“My God,” he said, “this place really is a shit hole.”

A red bandana tied around his head, Gonzalo was leaning back in a chair, cigarette in his mouth, watching The Real Housewives of Spanish Harlem.

“What’s that?” Crank said.

“That’s Gonzalo,” Patsy said, “he’s our head chef. He speaks no English, and he works for free.”

“Wow,” Chef Crank said. “Wow, wow, wow.”

All Chef Crank wanted to do was eat. Cameraman Jim stayed with him and Margot stood at the register. Patsy, Gonzalo and I clunked about the kitchen in front of cameraman Mike. Mike asked me what I thought of Chef Crank.

“I have no idea,” I said.  “I just met him.”

Patsy pushed me aside. “I have one word to describe Chef Crank,” she said into the camera. “Hot. Hot, hot, hot.”  I got it. If the women in the previous episodes wrote the script, Patsy transformed into an actress. Mike gave her the thumbs-up.

From the kitchen I watched Chef Crank grab a seat by the window with a view of a deserted laundromat. The menu was a series of snapshots of food that Margot took with her phone.

“Look at this menu,” he said, loud and clear. “One crappy photo after another.” He ordered a burger and a salad with celery sticks and Jell-O. In other words, he ordered everything. I handed Patsy a frozen burger, she handed it to Gonzalo, and he tossed it into the hot grease. While it sizzled Patsy and I chopped putrid bits off wilted lettuce and arranged it on a paper plate with sliced tomatoes. We scraped brown strings off celery sticks with a potato peeler until the sticks were as thin as Q-tips. The Jell-O took care of itself. When the burger made its way from fryer to plate, we threw the celery sticks on top for decoration and fit the Jell-O cup on the side. Patsy served it to Chef Crank with Mike on her tail. Chef Crank picked up a celery stick and sniffed it. He prodded the hamburger patty with a plastic fork while Patsy stood by his table. Margot spied from behind a rubber palm tree, and Gonzalo and I peered over the kitchen counter within earshot.

“Bloody hell,” he said to the camera, as he poked the burger. “Looks like a hockey puck.” He cut a piece and popped it into his mouth. His face twisted, and he took Patsy’s palm and held it inside of his. She flashed him her scintillating white teeth.  He spat the burger out in her hand. “This,” he said, holding up her palm, “is a piece of shit.” He threw the burger against the wall. The rubber tree shook its fake fronds. He scooped the Jell-O from its cup with a plastic spoon and it wobbled onto his lap. “Fuck me,” he said. He squished it into his mouth and spat it back on the floor and hacked. “Tastes like cough syrup.”

Crank called each one of us to his table. Four morons stood facing him as he went off like a Roman candle. Yes, the cooking oil was spoiled. Yes, the place was a dive. Yes, the food was coated with freezer burn. The wilted lettuce, the rotten celery, and of course the Jell-O was shite— need he say more?  But all this wasn’t on top of Chef’s agenda. The shocker was this: “This,” he picked the patty up off the floor and waved it in our faces as if we’d committed a crime, and then we learned we had when he said, “is not beef.”  It isn’t? What is it? “This,” he said, spitting flames, “is porridge mixed with breadcrumbs.”  (Porridge in Brit meant oatmeal in our language.) His delivery was executed with eloquence. “What have you fucking twats done?” Margot swallowed hard, opened her mouth and shut it when he screamed in her face. “What kind of business are you running?”

“I—I don’t know what you mean,” she said. Her bottom lip curled.

“You’ve cheated your customers, sweetheart.” His face crinkled up, and he squashed the burger on the table. “You’ve been selling porridge!”

“How can that be?” Margot balled. “Are you sure?”

“Fuck me, yes, I’m sure!” Chef Crank had over 10,000 people working under him so he could smell horseshit from a mile away. “Why did you lure me here?” he said. “To take the piss out of me?”

“Honestly, Chef Crank,” I said, “why would we do that?”

“Well, because,” he said, “everyone is crazy for me and can’t get enough, that’s why.”

Regardless of our craziness his input was critical. Chef Crank nodded to the crew.  Then Cut! rang out.  He had his makeup retouched; then we rolled again with Margot’s tears.

“I’m here to help,” he said, embracing her.  Patsy tried desperately to cry too, but everyone ignored her.  

Margot pulled back. “Cut!” she yelled. “I won’t let the public see me cry. How do my eyes look?  Do I have mascara dribbling down my face? Are my cheeks streaked black?”

“You can’t yell ‘cut,’” the production assistant said. “Only we can.”

“Crank complains too much,” Margot whined.  “This is my restaurant.”

“This is a television show,” Crank said.

“He’s the star,” I said. “He’s supposed to criticize us.” I turned to him. “Right?”

“Do you know how many people will be watching me?” Margot said.

“They’ll be watching me, darling,” Crank said, patting his face lightly.

“I won’t appear distraught,” she said.

“You’re supposed to appear distraught,” the lighting tech said. “Then the viewers can pity you.”

“I thought the viewers were supposed to hate her,” Patsy said.

“They were supposed to hate her,” Mike said, “but this is the part where they’re supposed to like her.” He turned to Margot, “So keep crying.”

“I can cry,” Patsy said. “Can’t they pity me?”

“Let’s roll.”

This was the scene where Chef Crank would interrogate us in a corner booth, and Patsy would admit that she made the burgers from oatmeal mixed with bread crumbs in an attempt to screw Margot. Patsy turned to her. “You’re always in the spotlight, and I’m sick of it,” she said. “Wait,” she said to Mike. “Can I do that over?”

“What?” Crank said. He looked at Mike. Mike stopped filming.

“This is the last time we cut,” he said. “Keep talking and we’ll chop what we don’t want during postproduction.”

“OK roll,” Patsy said. She cleared her throat. “You’re always in the spotlight.”

Chef Crank could give a shit about anyone’s spotlight. Once he had his information, he went into the kitchen with Gonzalo to rummage through the freezer because that was next in the schedule, and shooting could go on for hours. Both cameramen followed them.

At the table Margot confronted Patsy. “Oats? Spotlight? What’s wrong with you?” She turned to me, “Did you know about this?”

“Pipe down,” I said.

“It’s starting again,” Patsy said.

“What’s starting again?” Margot said. She looked at me. “I’ve got no clue what she means.”

“Applying for the show was a mistake,” I said. I turned to Patsy, “Oats?” I glanced at our pathetic menu. “This is embarrassing. I’m out of here.”

“That’s brilliant!” Patsy said. “How many people have walked out during the episodes we’ve seen and looked like assholes?”

“She’s right, you should leave,” Margot said. “Then Chef Crank will chase you down the street, and you’ll look like one big asshole in front of the entire viewing world.”

“He might even go to your house with the cameramen and tell you off,” Patsy said. “What an episode!”

It was impossible not to make the same mistakes other people made on the show. How easy it was to pass judgment as a viewer—how often we’d say: How could that asshole walk out when Chef Crank is there to help? But when you’re the victim of reality, you have to try hard not to be yourself.

“Wait,” I said, “in exchange for a good episode, we should act like assholes?”

“No,” Patsy said, “just you.”

“Margot?” Chef Crank called, “can you come here, darling?”

Patsy and I followed Margot into the kitchen. “Yes, Chef Crank?” she said in her best TV voice, “what seems to be the problem?”

“Biff Wilson,” Patsy said and crossed her arms.

Margot faced Patsy, “Buff? Wilson?” She searched her memory of years ago. “Who’s Buff Wilson?”

“You could show me what’s wrong, Chef Crank,” my voice rose over the squabble.

“Biff!” Patsy said.

“The freezer is leaking water,” Crank said. “The moisture is producing mildew.”

“Phi Kappa Sigma,” Patsy said. “Sophomore year? In the backseat of Biff’s car? You didn’t think I knew?” All trysts in the frat house whistled the same tune for Margot back then, and Patsy thought Fast Food Horrors was the place to discuss it.

“Your freezer is fucked,” Crank said, as he dug deeper, pulling out rancid oat burger after rancid oat burger.

Patsy erupted and called Margot a whore and a slut. Crank’s attention was arrested immediately. Margot and Patsy clawed at each other’s hair like felines. Margot’s chunky rings clanked against something, maybe against Patsy’s chunky earrings. Chef Crank, forsaking all thoughts of restaurant rehabilitation, yielded to the display.

“Wow,” he said as he tossed a burger onto the counter. “Wow, wow, wow.” I wanted to jump in and stop them, but my arms wouldn’t work, and I became entertained with the rest of the SHAX crew. The scent of deep fried nastiness lingered under my nostrils from Gonzalo’s muggy breath as he leaned over my shoulder to watch the mess of you-slept-with-my-boyfriend-years-ago writhe on the linoleum. Four stilettos scratched against the puke-green tile creating marks on the floor. Their heels dug into each other’s shins, and you couldn’t have gotten a better show if you were at a mud wrestling match. It was easy to fall prey to a camera when you knew the public would be watching. But this was just the kind of scene that attracted me to reality TV too.

To everyone’s dismay time ran out, and Chef Crank and the crew had to shove off.

“Let’s go for a drink,” Margot huffed.

“Let me get my purse,” Patsy puffed.

We went to a local bar and got drunk.

“What was that all about?” I said, sipping at an empty beer mug.  I motioned for a refill.

“The crew loved it,” Margot said, lighting a cigarette.

“This is turning out to be fun!” Patsy said.

“You’ve got to start doing something worthwhile for the show,” Margot said to me.

“You want me to act?” I said.

“Well, duh,” Patsy said, “we are on TV.”

“What do you want me to do?” I said.

“Get really upset, like you care.”

“I do care!”

“Television is a drug. The viewers are addicts. We’re the suppliers,” Patsy said. “If viewers get a good fix, we may even star on Fast Food Horrors Revisted!”

The next morning Chef Crank sat us down in a corner booth to relay his rumination of yesterday’s inspection. I tried not to be myself.

“It will take a miracle for the community to trust you after deceiving them with porridge,” he said, waving his finger in our faces. “But your food isn’t the only issue.” This was my cue.

“Oh, Chef Crank,” I pleaded, raising my eyebrows, “we are sooo desperate.  I mean, we’ll do anything you wish. We, like, so dig you that it hurts.”

“Corey, shut it,” he said, “and I have just the expert who can help.”

We braced ourselves for one of his specially trained chefs to enter, or top accountant, or a wicked cool food distributor. Chef Crank knew an expert in every pocket of the earth.  And just when we thought we’d seen it all—God walked in.  The big guy gave Crank a high-five. He eyed the place.  His long ancient robe billowed in a sudden wind. He looked the camera in the face, fingered his beard, and led the way as he surveyed the eatery. We held our breath. If anyone had an answer to this mess, it would be him. Through God’s eyes it was clear how much of a pigsty our joint had become. With his narrow finger he swiped the shelves that held our cheerleading trophies. It came up dust. He gazed at our cheerleading photos that Margot hung on the wall by a broken jukebox. The jukebox was old and was a gift from Margot’s parents’ attic. The only 45 that played was a Beatles one. We loved the Beatles, but it was a crappy B-side Ringo song. And it skipped. We never got around to fixing it. God put a nickel in and when the tune came skipping on, he looked up as if to ask himself, Why? Crank hurried over and hit the jukebox with his fist.

God returned to the photos on the wall. He shook his head in distaste as he glimpsed a picture of me with my arms in a high-five position standing atop a row of football players. I watched the cameraman watch Crank as he watched God watching me. God walked toward the restrooms; then suddenly he tripped, landing on all fours.  He stubbed his toe due to an uprooted chunk of tile that left a crevice in the floor. Crank gave us a look as he helped God up. God brushed himself off and continued to the bathroom and shut the door behind him.

“Look at what you imbeciles have done!” Crank yelled. “You’d be lucky—lucky!—if God could save you.”

Patsy made the sign of the cross. I copied Patsy, and Margot was shell-shocked over the whole God thing because she is an atheist—excuse me, was.  He took an extraordinary length of time in the toilet, so Crank went in to check on him. We huddled outside the Men’s Room door peering in. There was no sign of God. The window had been flung open.

Crank snapped his fingers. “Ok, over there, twats.” He sat us down in a corner booth after God escaped with no insight other than our business was in dire straits. “I’m gobsmacked,” Crank said, shaking his finger at us. “Out of all the restaurants I’ve ever been in I’ve never, ever, seen such a disaster.”

“What’s ‘gobsmacked’ mean?” Margot said to Patsy.

“No idea,” Patsy said. “Probably something horrid.”

“It means ‘shocked,’” I said, “in Brit.”

“You’re really in the shit,” Crank said to Margot. “You’ve got fuck all.” He’d said this to almost every owner in the episodes of Fast Food Horrors that aired. Gonzalo emerged from his pit, his baggy jeans slung below his boxers, with a bowl of oatmeal.  He sat down. Margot shot Patsy a look.

“What’s wrong with you!” Crank said to Gonzalo.

“¿Qué?”

“How could you stuff your face with porridge in front of Margot after what Patsy did?”

“¿Qué?”

“The burrrgers, the burrrgers,” Crank drawled.

Gonzalo spooned oats into his mouth. “Me no English.”

“Bloody hell,” Crank said, “I’m about to quit.”

Nobody said a word. Mike lifted his head over the camera and made a gesture for one of us to speak.

“Oh. Right.” Margot cleared her throat. “Please stay.” She looked at Mike. Crank rolled his eyes. Margot pretended to cry. “If I lose my business, I lose everything,” she said and hung her head.

“So, like, should we give up?” I said. Watch—Never.

“Never,” Chef said, “never, ever, ever, ever, ever. But you’ve got to work as a team.”

“So, like, if we do whatever you say, then we won’t be a bunch of losers?” Patsy said.

“No,” he said, “you’re still a bunch of losers. You’ll just need to cooperate.”

We promised him we’d cooperate from that point on. Mike gave us the thumbs-up behind the camera as Crank assigned duties for the relaunching of the restaurant. Patsy was to scrub the toilets and the sinks with her toothbrush, and Margot and I were to help Chef Crank paint the walls and retile the floors. Gonzalo was assigned the mission of spreading the word that Chef Crank was in town by visiting the Hispanic community and delivering flyers begging them to give Burger Without a Bun a second chance. Chef handed him flyers written in English and Spanish that guaranteed the best burgers that their customers would ever eat made from 100% beef. Margot threw her arms around Chef Crank. He clung to her joyfully. He liked to hug people. Especially people like Margot.

Chef Crank splurged for a new freezer, and the jukebox was replaced with an Xbox. The cheerleading photographs were blown up into life-sized posters. Chef sent Patsy down to the local slaughterhouse to see what hamburgers were really made out of, and two days later the place was brand new, and the kitchen was stocked with minced cattle.

Chef Crank demonstrated how to cook hamburgers on the state-of-the-art grill he installed. He whipped up a recipe before our eyes: ground sirloin with Worcestershire sauce, chopped leeks, Dijon mustard, pickled beets and braised fennel.

“Pay attention,” he said as he kneaded the meat. “Let me show you how it’s done.” We focused on his fingers, pushing slowly at first, then gradually pushing faster into the meat with his thumbs. “You’ve got to get deep in there,” he said, looking at Margot. “Grind it.” Gonzalo took notes. “The faster you grind,” he continued, “the better it gets until the mixture comes together.” Patsy let out a sigh.

He mounded the meat into balls, then squashed them between his palms and put them on the grill. “No more deep frying.”  He smacked Gonzalo on the chest with the back of his hand.  “Got that, amigo?” He gave us a taste of the finished product.

“Umm,” Margot said dramatically, wiping her lips, “party in my mouth.” Patsy said it was amazing because that was her favorite word. I thought it needed salt, but I wasn’t about to shatter any myth in front of the television viewers by saying so, so I ended up concurring with the group.

Our place was set to reopen at lunchtime. We waited until two-thirty, but nobody came. After all the effort we’d made, the relaunching of Burger Without a Bun did not bring in any business. News of Chef Crank’s arrival brought no new customers as nobody in town had heard of Chef Crank.  Nobody could afford to.

“We’ll have to expand advertising beyond your borders,” Crank said. He ogled us. “I have an idea, but there’s somewhere we need to go first.” He took Margot by the hand, and the cameramen followed. They hopped into the SHAX van and sped off.

“Geez, that sucks,” I said. “How come we couldn’t go?”

Patsy shrugged. “I don’t know. Because we have to stay here and keep an eye on things.”

“Like what?” I said. “What things?”

“I don’t know,” Patsy said. “Gonzalo.”

“Is it because Margot’s the prettiest?”

“No,” she said, “don’t be absurd.”

“Yes, it is,” I said. “Margot gives good television face.”

“Save it,” Patsy said. “Save your spiel for Mike and Jim.”

“Girls, I have a surprise for you,” Chef said when they returned. “Put these on.” He pulled out sapphire hot pants and melon halter tops from the shopping bag Margot was holding. Margot took her set and held it against her body in front of the mirrored wall.

“Aren’t they fantastic?” she said. “Chef bought us new outfits!”

“The colors will go amazing with my new boots!” Patsy said.

Chef Crank beamed.  “Now you will stand out from your competitors!”

I wanted to die. There was no way I’d degrade myself by squeezing into hot pants. I hadn’t been working out recently, and my figure was flaccid. But my resistance would send the “asshole threat level” to red alert, and my expression must have confirmed that because Mike and Jim zoomed in on me.

“Tell the viewers what you think, Corey,” they said.

I wanted nothing more than to hold the clothes up and say, “Fuck these, fuck hot pants,” but ended up saying something banal. “Thanks, Chef Crank, thanks an awful lot.”

“No problem,” he said. “Hey, where’s Gonzalo?” He clapped his hands. “¡Gonzalo! ¡Vamos!”

We paraded the streets in our hot pants. We hopped buses from avenues littered with trashcans to boulevards littered with BMWs. Gonzalo and Chef Crank handed everyone who walked by a sample burger wrapped in lettuce, and Margot, Patsy, and I handed out invitations to a relaunch of our relaunch.  Chef Crank took a poll, and most people said they’d happily pay a buck for our burgers. The men said they’d pay even more if we personally served them in our hot pants.

The crowd was posh, not one you’d normally see grace Burger Without a Bun.

“Isn’t this amazing?” Patsy said. Japanese businessmen were lined up outside the door with their cameras ready to snap pictures, and I wanted to set fire to myself.

Margot smoothed down her hot pants. “Oh, look. A camera. Come.” She pulled Patsy over to the side while Jim interviewed them.

Customers mulled about waiting to be seated. The smell of grilled wholesomeness emanated from the vents into the alley drawing locals in as well. Margot greeted each guest and took their orders.  She checked on each table and worked the room, aware of Jim pursuing her. Mike filmed Patsy and me in the kitchen shaping burgers with the help of Chef Crank while Gonzalo grilled. If there was anything to prove, it was that we had learned to make decent food.  As I scooped a handful of meat and began mounding it into a burger, I felt something hard and squeezed what I thought was a piece of pickled beet in between my thumb and forefinger, then flicked it into the trash. After the orders settled, Margot, Patsy, and I, as suggested by Chef Crank, stood waving to a cheering crowd of patrons. Chef Crank was about to usher in the mayor of the city to hand Burger Without a Bun the Best Bang for the Buck award. Food critics huddled together in a corner booth. Then a shriek came from the kitchen.  The place fell silent.

“¡Cocinero! ¡Una cucaracha! ¡Cocinero!” Gonzalo tore out of the kitchen. “¡Cocinero! ¡Muchas cucarachas!”

A lady at one table asked what Gonzalo was yelling, and someone from another table whispered in her ear, and this went on from table to table like the telephone game until the end when the last patron exclaimed, “It’s a rat!” A cockroach, a rat. What difference did it make? People spat their food out and began leaving.

“Chef Crank!” Margot yelled, “help us!” She turned to Mike or Jim, I couldn’t tell them apart anymore, and said, “Stay tuned, America, Chef Crank will fix this.”

We followed Crank into the kitchen as he ripped Gonzalo a new one, an old one, whatever the cliché. “You’ve made a wanker out of me in front of the American viewing public!” he screamed, waving his finger in his face. “After all I’ve done! Calling the mayor, sealing you an award.” He shook his head. “There are bloggers out there!” Gonzalo understood squat but kept wiping his face from Crank’s spittle.  Margot started to cry for real, her bottom lip quivering too much to yell Cut.

Roaches crawled across the sparkling countertops and filed into nooks and crannies as I tried whacking them with a dishtowel. One held its balance on the rim of the bowl that contained raw meat. The cameras followed Crank to the cellar, and Margot, Patsy, Gonazalo, and I followed the cameras. Crank switched the light on, and it turned out that the cellar, which was Gonzalo’s living quarters, was infested with roaches and garbage.  Nobody ever went down there because that would have been, like, invading Gonzalo’s space.  Gonzalo told Patsy that he didn’t notice the roaches because the cellar was dark, and he only dropped to bed half drunk, but in retrospect while sleeping on his futon he felt creepy, itchy things crawling over his skin. As the roaches scurried under the lights, the SHAX crew took to their phones, relaying the scene with glee to whomever they relayed it to.

But the show mustn’t always go on. After the diners left, Chef Crank walked out the door with the cameras behind him to where the lighting crew waited. This was the last scene. The one where he’d predict the outcome of our business. He’d walk off into the night, leaving our fate hanging in the balance. We’d have to wait several months for the episode to air while SHAX spliced us, diced us, superimposed us, set us to music and narrated us from their perspective.

The temperature dropped. Clouds dispensed rain. The crew packed their belongings, and Chef Crank came back in, shaking off the weather, not as a celebrity shooting a television show, but as a guy named Gordon, who happened to be an exquisite chef. We posed for photos. We bantered about Margot’s and Patsy’s catfight, maybe about the oats. I can’t remember.  We idly put odds and ends back into their places. The rain stopped. One of us mumbled something about going out for a drink. Then suddenly, the events that transpired in the last few days didn’t seem so important.

 

 

 

Jennifer Juneau’s work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize for fiction and the Million Writers Award. Her stories and poems have appeared in numerous journals such as The Cincinnati Review, Evergreen Review, Fairy Tale Review, Pank, Passages North, The Seattle Review, and Verse Daily. She recently finished a short story collection and is currently working on a novel.