by Greg Rhyno
“Anthony, look what I found.”
Tara’s kid shakes me awake. When I turn my head, particles of sand come unstuck from my face.
“It’s beach glass, right?”
A little palisade of beer cans obscures my vision. I push myself up into a sitting position and scan the beach. The sun is almost halfway to the horizon, but the place is still busy with weekend traffic: leathery men knee-deep and smoking in the surf, toddlers plunking around with plastic shovels. A little further on I can make out a row of women stretched out on towels, bums flossed with bikini bottoms. A black drone whines and records everything.
I squint at the thing in the kid’s hand. “No, Elliot. That’s from a liquor bottle. Here, give it to me before you cut yourself.”
He groans as he gives up the sharp object. I start to say something else, but he’s looking over my shoulder.
A little further down the beach, a dad is bringing back a feast from the fry stand. A cloud follows him like he’s a cartoon character having a bad day. Except this cloud has a million beaks, projectile feces, and an insatiable hunger for French fries.
“Don’t say ‘shit’,” I tell Elliot.
Tara trained her kid early to scare off seagulls. Whenever one wanders into our camp he chases after it with a ferocity specific to five-year-old boys. When it comes to fries, though, there’s no point. You might as well chain yourself to the mountain and offer up your liver.
“It’s getting late.” Tara looks at her watch. “Maybe we should get some Goldie’s, too.”
I take another look at Prometheus on the beach. “I’m not that hungry.”
“All we’ve got back at the cottage is pasta salad.”
“Goldie’s it is.” I pull my shirt over my head.
“I’ll take Ellie home,” she offers. “Meet us there?”
I squint at her. “Only if you lend me your sunglasses.”
Tara gives me her plastic shades, and then gathers up the towels and beer cans. I start making my way down the boardwalk, through the shimmering dune grass and onto the hot asphalt. It’s early in the season and the bottoms of my feet are still shoed with soft, winter flesh. Every sharp pebble sends a zing up my legs and I scan the ground for trouble. At night, the parking lot is a gathering place for tourist kids who drink and smoke and smash because really, what else is there to do here? Monday mornings, a crew from the municipality sweeps up party debris like parents back from a weekend away. I feed the piece of glass I confiscated from Elliot into a garbage can and hear it rattle down into the guts.
Goldie’s Fries is a squat, colourless structure. They repainted the siding blue a couple years ago, but already, the sun has bleached it back to a greyish-white. When I get closer, I notice that, for the first time in a long time, there’s no line-up.
“Can I help you?”
Behind Goldie’s order window, the kid’s skin is pale and sallow with grease. I ask for a burger with the works for myself and two large fries for everyone else. It’s enough to feed a seagull army.
“There’s a couple orders ahead of you,” the pale kid tells me. “We’ll call you when it’s ready.”
He takes my name, and I walk around and stand on the other side of the building with a couple other customers. The last heat of the day is pulling out any buzz left in my head.
A woman crossing the parking lot says, “Stay with me.” It’s an irritable and anxious little voice. She’s yanking on a leash, but I can’t tell if she’s talking to her dog or to her husband.
“Who orders their burger ‘medium rare’ at a fry stand?” asks another, bigger voice.
For a second, I think he’s talking to me. Like he works for the Fry Stand Authority and he’s not okay with my order. Not that I ordered my burger medium rare. But even the Fry Stand Authority makes mistakes.
The guy with the big voice is small and wiry with cords of muscle that run up his arms into a sleeveless shirt. There’s a small gold crucifix around his neck, and above it, one of his eyes is all wrong. It’s milky and white and I figure he can’t see out of it.
The guy beside him—the guy I realize he’s talking to— is bigger, and a little younger, with a dense beard climbing his cheekbones like it wants to take over the rest of his face. Like he’s part werewolf or something. They’re both wearing the same kind of floral bathing suit.
“Listen, Bud,” the little guy with the big voice says, “you’ve got to rethink the way you order food. They’re laughing at you in there, you know that?”
I can’t tell if Bud is really his name, or just the name the little guy calls everybody. Some guys are like that. They pick one name—like Bud, or Chief, or Pal—and that’s all you ever are to them.
Bud shrugs and says something I can’t hear.
“Well, you sound like a little bitch, you know that? Are you like this at home, too? Do you ask Kim to make your spaghetti al dente? Sheesh. I’d kill you in your sleep.”
A couple heads turn and the little guy swells with attention the way guys like that do.
Through the sunglasses I borrowed from Tara, I watch Bud point up at the seagulls that stand sentinel along Goldie’s roofline. He says something else I can’t hear.
“Makes sense,” the loud little guy says. “I mean this is the only business on the strip. They’re not afraid of getting shooed away. They’re just waiting for the next fry to drop. Bet they do a great job of keeping the parking lot clean.”
The parking lot’s actually a mess, but there isn’t a French fry on the ground. As I’m looking down, I feel Tara’s glasses slip off my face, and they hit the asphalt before I can catch them. When I try to bend over and pick them up, I can’t seem to reach them.
A few minutes pass and then Goldie herself comes out into the parking lot. It’s a rare sighting. In the three years we’ve been coming here, I’ve only seen her at the fry stand once, and then once more downtown, dressed in a turquoise tracksuit and visor like a wealthy Floridian widow.
Now, she’s wearing a t-shirt with her name on it like everybody else who works there. She slowly circles the fry stand, savouring the air, collecting up the A-frame sign that directs customers to ‘Try a delicious Free-Z!!’ There’s almost something regal about it. Like watching the Queen perform a royal inspection.
“Jesus. Little old to be working at a fast food joint, huh?” A thick, yellow tear draws a line down the guy’s cheek, and he wipes his eye with the back of his hand.
Bud says something I can’t quite make out.
“Oh yeah? Bet she’s worth a few bucks, then. Maybe I should introduce myself.”
Bud says something else.
“Well, I know you would, you dirty fuck. Anyone who orders their burger ‘medium rare’— who knows what you’re capable of?”
Goldie turns and goes through the back exit. Someone has stenciled the words ‘Staff Only’ on the door in red, but the words are higher than I remember. When I look down at my feet, I’m a little closer to the ground than I was before. Tara’s sunglasses are still out of reach.
About then, a woman in a golf shirt walks away from the order window shaking her head. She makes her way back toward a minivan and rests her hands on the open passenger window. The colour of her fingernails matches the colour of her shirt and the colour of her shirt matches the colour of the minivan. I can see a man and a couple kids inside. She says something to them and a chorus of groans sounds out. She gets into the vehicle and they all drive away.
“Tough luck, babe,” the guy says. “There’s always Burger King!”
I can feel my skin getting harder, like the sun has baked it into a fragile armour. When I look down at my arms, I can see they’re shorter now, and they’ve taken on a kind of cloudy, translucent quality. I’m tired, and I hope my food comes soon.
Bud says something I can’t make out.
“Guess we’re the last order of the day,” the guy answers. “Either that or everybody quit because of your bullshit order. Maybe they’ve decided to shutter the business for good.”
Someone inside the fry stand calls out a name, and a couple standing nearby walk up to the window. The man picks up the carton of food and makes a show of how heavy it is. The woman pumps ketchup from the dispenser. No one else is left beside Bud and the loud guy, and I don’t want to be drawn into their shitty orbit.
As the couple walks away, an enormous black Escalade thunders into the parking lot. I’m pretty close to the ground now, and I can feel the bass notes bouncing off my what used to be my skin. Six or seven teenagers dressed as nineteenth century voyageurs climb out and show each other things on their phones.
Bud says something.
“Yeah,” the guy says. “Real authentic. Great job.”
I can feel the evening sun penetrating my surface. I can pull some of the light inside, but only so much. Everything seems bigger, and my depth perception is off. I’m so close to the ground now that Tara’s sunglasses tower over me. I worry that I’ll attract attention, but no one seems to notice.
Bud and the loud guy are the only people left and they’re busy watching one of the teenage voyageurs as he knocks on the back door of Goldie’s. When the door opens, the pale kid is standing there with four cartons of fries stacked on top of one another. The voyageur takes the fries and nods to one of his friends, who jogs over to help him with the food.
“Well, somebody’s getting the royal treatment. Wonder if they got their burgers medium rare?”
The voyageur looks over his shoulder at the loud guy. He looks back at his friend and grins. The two of them head toward their friends.
Bud says something.
“Yeah. Or maybe their mothers just dress them funny.”
I have some vague sense of something I want to communicate. Some kind of unformulated response seems to crystalize inside of me. Of course, by now I have no mouth to say it, and can only vibrate in sympathy as the Escalade rumbles away.
My name rings clear across the parking lot like a dinner bell. A few moments pass and I hear someone call it again.
It sounds so strange to me now.
The window at the back slides open to reveal Goldie herself. She calls out my name one last time. I can hear the quiet guy say something.
“We totally should. I mean, there’s no one else here.”
Goldie calls out Bud’s name.
“Guess it’s too late now.”
They walk up to the window and pick up their order.
“That’s a lot of fucking fries. No wonder this place is so popular.”
As they start walking away, the quiet guy unwraps his burger and lifts the bun. He says something.
“Of course it isn’t, you knob. You think they’ve got gourmet chefs working for minimum wage back there? I’ll bet you ten bucks they all took turns spitting in that burger.”
They walk toward me. As they get closer I can feel the enormous weight of their footfalls and worry for a moment that one of them is going to step right on me. Bud stops and looks down. I can see right up his nostrils. The pores of his skin look like gopher holes, and his beard is a dense and tangled forest. Even this close, I can’t make out what he’s saying.
“I don’t know.” The loud guy looks down at me through his ruined eye. “Old piece of glass, maybe? Petrified seagull shit?”
Bud shrugs. He picks me up and drops me in the pocket of his bathing suit. I slip down, smooth again the synthetic fabric. It’s dark and I can feel the unsettling warmth of his groin.
I think about Elliot. Whether or not he’ll remember me. I’m sad he’ll never come running up to me again, breathless and flushed, holding something in his hand for me to identify. But already, my memories of him are fading. And then, all I can think about is Tara—not so much her, but her disappointment—as she gives up on waiting for me and spoons cold pasta salad onto their empty plates.
Greg Rhyno is the author of Who By Fire, the first novel in the Dame Polara mystery series, forthcoming from Cormorant Books. His debut novel, To Me You Seem Giant, was nominated for a ReLit Award and an Alberta Booking Publishing Award. His writing has appeared in a number of journals including Hobart, Riddle Fence, The Quarantine Review, and PRISM International. He completed an MFA at the University of Guelph and lives with his family in Guelph, Ontario.