The Pen and the Prod: USDA Prime Poetry and Prose
Love at the Gunder Street Pub & Grill
By John McManus, licensed burgiatrist
He leaned back and pulled open the metal-framed plate-glass door of the Gunder Street Pub & Grill with what felt like his last ounce of strength. A meager ring of the bell above his head seemed shrill to him in his state, and it sparked his sensitive nerves. But as the door closed, warm air, the murmuring of strangers, the sound and smell of the sizzling flat grill, the colors of the long mahogany bar and the scattered heavy glasses filled with brown, gold and amber, and the dim stained glass lights quickly melted the chill from his sanguine cheeks.
This was where they came, he and Laura. Most often in the early evening to share a burger and beers after her late afternoon studio time in the Fine Arts building. Sometimes later, with friends and the masses, to consume much more and celebrate the Homecoming win, the end of exams or just young life. Usually though, before the masses came, to be alone and nestled together in the nook of their favorite green-cushioned booth, beneath the low colored lights.
Laura had turned him on to this place when she shockingly agreed to have a beer with him after classes one day, the proposition made with feigned confidence and eyes barely able to look her directly in the dizzying bright blue of her own. Their first real conversation began immediately upon meeting at the steps of her dormitory and continued effortlessly through the walk downtown to “the Gunder,” then into the night. It kicked off with her gushing praise and impassioned recommendation of the Gunder’s “Big Bomber” and their discovery of a mutual obsession with fine cheeseburgers. From there, it flowed into exultations of the Big Bomber as they ate and drank, tales of other great burger discoveries as they shared a few more beers, then music, art, family, ambitions, teasing, sarcasm, sincere compliments, incredibly soft kisses on the faded plaid couch in the lobby of her dorm, and whispers over the phone until they gave in to their exhaustion in early morning hours, each beside the unfamiliar and unconscious roommates they were assigned at the start of the semester.
He shuffled to the third booth along the left wall and slumped into his side of it without bothering to remove his overcoat and scarf. His gaze wandered a bit before fixing on one of the ragged picture frames literally screwed to the wall beside him. In it was a monochrome caricature on sallow paper of a golfer, post-swing, with his cartoon arms stretched long and wrapping around him two or three times in a spiral. The ball remains on the tee. An obese chipmunk at the edge of the tee is laughing with buck teeth and asking “What Fore?” Laura had co-opted that chipmunk in her efforts for a Visual Arts degree. Sketches, watercolors, a “blue” oil-on- canvas, with the fat little bugger’s face in a morose expression, barely discernable beneath a haze of crisscrossed dark blue, black and purple strokes. He closed his eyes, the image of the cartoon golfer faded to black, and a new one faded in. Pink knees on her fair-skinned legs, as she would sit sideways in the window sill, feet and all, in her nightshirt, drawing on the sketchpad on her thighs.
“Hey.” His watery eyes opened. It was Hillary, a Communications Law classmate, future anchorwoman, and their usual waitress. “I already know, don’t I?”
“Yes you do.”
“She’s not coming.”
“Oh.” Hillary looks away from her ticketbook, at him, slouched there, and knows. “You doing okay?”
“All right then. What to drink?”
“Would you mind surprising me on that?” The beer list is long. He didn’t have the energy to choose.
“Not at all. I’ll be right back with that.”
He never really looked up at her. Pretended the hanging light was a bother and looked back down as he answered. He looked across the booth and suddenly, Laura was there, her straight black hair pulled back with long strands on each side having fallen out of her characteristic haphazard ponytail to frame the light complexion of her face. And then she was gone. In the two weeks since she changed into someone else who had no love for him, it had happened this way. Vivid images of her that would quickly fade, and become all the harder to recapture, the more he tried. He sat trying in vain, as Hillary returned. She placed a glass of frothy dark beer in front of him.
“It’s wicked malty,” said the Boston girl, in an accent that was likely a hurdle in her quest to become the next Katie Couric. “I know you’ll like it. And your Bomber’ll be out in a few.”
“Great. Thanks, Hill.” He’d never called her that before. Perhaps the extra couple of syllables were just too much for him at the moment.
She noticed, but liked the sound of it. “And this one’s on me,” she said, as she dropped a double shot of Irish whiskey beside his beer. She walked away before he could thank her, or lamely protest the need for it.
Alone again, he closed his eyes. Pink knees; the sharp angles of her face that should have made her seem stern or uptight, but somehow came together to be soft and made her seem like his China doll; the two freckles behind and slightly below her left ear—often the first thing he saw when they woke… none of these came to him as he tried to conjure her, no matter how he strained at it.
He opened his eyes to find one of the round center tables watching him. Two average guys and one impish short stick of a girl with thin hair. When he saw them, they did not look away, rudely studying him for a moment longer. He simply looked away, not knowing or caring whether they laughed or continued to stare.
He began looking through the salt and pepper. Drained, he thought of the incessant weight, emptiness and nausea he’d been bearing these past weeks, almost wanting them to suddenly ramp and flare in a crescendo of sadness and self-pity that would become absolutely unbearable until, in a flash of light, he would max out his ability to care. He would be simply exorcised of her, and breathe again. He was tired. Now he sat thinking nothing. Not of her image, nor of his memories of the best and worst times with her. Nothing. He just sat and felt. Empty. Heavy. A bit sick to his stomach, but sipping occasionally at the beer that was malty and good as Hillary had promised and slightly soothed his nagging nausea.
In this daze, time passed, until Hillary approached again and slide his Big Bomber and fries in their paper-lined red-plastic basket in front of him. “Here you go, babe. I’m off tonight and wrapping up, so someone else’ll check you out, but I’ll be back to check on you one more time before I go to see if you need anything, alright?”
He heard just enough of what she said. “Sounds good.” And she was off again.
He had come there to be where they’d been and to get what they’d gotten, but he hadn’t planned to actually eat anything. He hadn’t been eating much at all lately. He sat back in the booth and sipped more beer, looking at the Bomber before him. Laura came back to him again, as he remembered their first night here, his first Big Bomber, and how she broke down its construction: the house-made potato bun, the quality of the ground chuck for the fat hand-made patty, thick yellow American cheese that had been dropped for a second on the flat grill to jumpstart the melting. Shredded iceberg lettuce and deep-red slices of tomato blending their juices with the real mayonnaise. He had laughed and delighted in her shared passion for this, and appreciated her ability to articulate the qualities of the great cheeseburgers they shared that day.
He suddenly recognized the warm smells and the sight of the burger in front of him as being exactly the same as on their first date. He leaned forward to take a bite, knowing it would be the same first bite. He lifted the Bomber and, with the juices running in a stream down the inside of his right forearm, as they had that first day, he took a bite. The rich flavor made him almost woozy with pleasure as he chewed with his eyes closed. He savored through another bite with his eyes still closed, knowing Laura was watching. He gave a small chuckle to himself just before he swallowed, and then, opened his eyes.
The booth was empty again. A deep warmth and a chill swept over him at once, and he grew extremely heavy, to the point that he slumped down in his seat, pushing the burger away as he did. Tears began streaming down his cheeks. In a nauseas daze he returned to holding, and occasionally sipping, his dark beer.
Then, in his warbled periphery, he saw Hillary reappear and stand over his table for a moment before sliding into the booth against him. He acquiesced, shuffling once to give her enough room, but averted his gaze with little hope of hiding his state.
Hillary dropped her car keys on the table, put her right arm around him and picked up the double shot of whiskey in her left hand. He looked at her, her pleasant face very close to his. Her hazel eyes looked right into his, and he had the sense of being in the shade of her lofty mane of brown hair. With the back of her index finger, still holding the shot glass, she wiped away the tears on his cheeks. Then she tossed back half of the whiskey in the glass and handed the rest to him. He took it, swallowed the rest, and looked back at her. He wanted to hug her, or to have her hug him. She looked at him for a moment, then held his chin as she kissed him on the cheek. “Don’t let that Bomber go to waste, okay? I’ll see you in Comms Law tomorrow. Take care.”
She picked up her keys and walked out, the doorbell giving a pleasant jingle. He sat up and took a bite.