"Stigmata alert," says The Burg, voice as deep as a man's. I turn to see Hubie Siskel standing at the grill with blood draining from his upheld palm. The hamburger cooler is open and the blade of a grill scraper juts out and glistens with Hubie's internal fluid.
"WHO DID THIS?" Hubie bellows, bringing everything to a stop, and The Burg and I exchange a raised-brow glance.
The manager of the BB is Dirk, an unabashed company tool who sports a porno mustache and feathered hair like he's trapped in the eighties. Dirk sidles up to Hubie and places his hand on his back and speaks into his ear. Hubie shrugs him off and says something about respect, to which Dirk says that respect has to go both ways. Then Hubie reaches for the cooler. At first I think he's trying to reenact the accident, but instead he comes up with a pistol. It's dull black with a slender barrel, like the ones carried by Nazi officers in the movies.
Hubie fires a shot into the ceiling. People shout and take cover. A shower of plaster falls onto the grill.
"You," he barks to the manager. "Get your keys out and lead the way." Dirk starts to protest but Hubie flicks the gun at his face and he shuts up. Together they walk through the kitchen, past the registers and into the restaurant proper, where Hubie orders the two front entrances locked. Most of the customers have fled; only an elderly couple remains, hunched over half-eaten hamburgers and cups of coffee as if the gunshot hadn't registered.
"Folks," Hubie says, "this is an emergency situation. We're closing up early."
They look up at the fry cook, standing there in his grease-spattered uniform with a gun in his hand, and proceed to finish chewing what's in their mouths. Eventually they stand and gather their things, in no hurry whatsoever, the man zipping his jacket to the throat, the woman fastening her purse and adjusting her massive eyeglasses. They even wrap the uneaten food. To his credit, Hubie remains patient and accommodating the entire time.
Okay. The rear entrance. It's just a few feet away from the sink, at the top of the stairs. Several employees have materialized from the basement, peeked at the madman around the corner and hustled out. I turn to join them, but The Burg puts a man-hand on my chest, smirking.
"Let's see how this plays out."
"It's just Hubie. He won't hurt anyone."
"You mean the man with the gun?"
"So, what, you gonna go stand out there with your thumb up your ass? Wondering what's going on in here with your friends?"
"C'mon, stud, Hubie needs our help. Be part of the solution for once."
By now they've made it back to the kitchen and Hubie is rounding up Marge, the chain-smoking, complaint-a-minute biddy who works the register. She's the only employee who hasn't bolted.
Except, now, for us.
"You two there. Indian girl. Lock that door."
I could still slip out; Hubie's a good fifteen feet away and not even pointing the gun at us. It's pretty clear he's new at this criminal stuff.
But The Burg has already made he decision for us.
"He called me Indian girl," she says, turning the deadbolt. "How precious is that?"
Hubie shepherds us down to the break room. Marge takes a seat across from Dirk and launches into her familiar complaint about the "arctic temperature down here." The Burg raids the first aid kit and tends to Hubie's bloody palm. Hubie holds the gun loosely in his other hand. The Burg could slam him to the ground like a ragdoll and end this whole thing, but that's not her style. She has this thing for the old and less fortunate.
Hubie Siskel is a short, stooped man with salt-and-pepper hair that covers his skull like a mop and sprouts from his uniform collar in great tufts. You look at Hubie and you think furry. He's a relatively handsome dude, or at least was, except for the constant scowl. I imagine he lost someone or something dear to him, probably due to a tragic illness or better yet a random murder in which the killer was never caught. Prior to that Hubie was a respected engineer, or perhaps a cardiovascular surgeon, but the crushing grief sapped his inspiration and rendered him a bitter fry cook.
When The Burg is finished Hubie looks at the bandage and says, "Good work, there. What's your name again missy?"
"Well, it's not Missy," she says, towering over him. Hubie doesn't bite. "Or Pocahontas, for that matter." Nothing. "Okay, the name's Denise, but everyone calls me The Burg."
"Sure, The Bird."
"Alright, Bird, sit there with the rest of them."
Dirk stands. In true managerial fashion he explains that the grill scraper was just an accident, that one of the other cooks must have knocked it into the cooler inadvertently, and that there's no reason for any of this to go any further. That if Hubie gives himself up now, the company will forgive everything save for the ceiling damages, which, he suggests, can be paid off with future wages.
"That's bullshit and you know it," says The Burg/Bird. "The man fired a loaded weapon in a public restaurant. He took hostages. He's facing serious felony charges."
Hands down, The Burg is the most honest and direct person I know. I was initiated to this fact in this very break room recently when the subject turned to our mothers' many boyfriends. One night, The Burg explained, she awoke to a man named Earl finger-fucking her while he worked himself off and her mother snored in the next bedroom. Earl's next stop, she said, without batting an eye, was the emergency room.
Dirk glares at her. She glares back.
"You're fired," he says.
"I don't need a reason. But if it makes you feel better, insubordination."
"Good," she says. "I don't work for—-"
"You stupid shit," says Hubie. "This girl's one of your best workers. And the only one with a backbone."
The Burg flushes—-a strange sight, indeed.
"You know what your problem is, sonny? You forgot what it's like to be a worker bee." Hubie points to a massive pile of boxes just outside the break room: thousands of frozen patties waiting to be stored in the freezer, a job abandoned by one of the fleeing grunts. "So go make yourself useful, why don't you."
Dirk stands, then sits back down. "I don't think so. I'm not-"
Hubie fires another shot into the ceiling, then lowers the gun and sends a round directly over Dirk's head.
"Keyrist," says Marge. "Could you quit firing that thing?" She pulls out a pack of cigarettes and lights one up.
"You can't smoke in here," says Dirk.
"Oh, puleeze," she says. "Go stack some boxes already."
Dirk shakes his head and mumbles something about firing the lot of us as he makes his way out of the break room. From above come the faint sounds of scuffling and excited voices. I stand and peer up through the bullet hole, which goes all the way through to the first floor. An eyeball stares back.
"They're inside, Hubie," says The Burg. "It won't be long."
She gets up and closes the door to the break room, engaging the lock and shutting Dirk out of the equation.
"The thing they'll get you for," says The Burg, standing at the head of the table, hands folded behind her back, lawyer-like, "is premeditation. I mean, look at the evidence. You snuck a gun into the establishment, hid it in your work area and retrieved said weapon to execute your plan. It's a prosecutor's wet dream."
"There was no plan," says Hubie. "I was gonna pawn the damn thing to pay the mortgage. I forgot I had it till I took off my coat. Had to put it somewhere."
Hubie is seated with elbows on the table. The gun is in front of him. I could reach out and snatch it, but there's no need.
"Don't even remember grabbing it," Hubie says. "Just saw red. Little piss ants."
"I assume the gun is yours," says The Burg, pacing now, head down. "From the war, perhaps? And that it's registered?"
Hubie shakes his head. "I never served in any war. It was my brother-in-law's before he passed. The old lady left it behind in the divorce."
A helmeted head briefly appears in the small window of the door. It's the only way to see into the fortress-like room.
"Cop alert," I say.
But Hubie doesn't seem to care. "They call it a Luger," he says. "Probably get a few hundred for it, anyway."
The Burg says, "But why this, Hubie? Why the hostages?"
He looks at her and smiles.
"You have wonderful green eyes, young woman. Just like my old lady."
The Burg takes a seat and nods, giving Hubie the floor.
"She really liked to party, that one. Ten of the best years of my life." He lets loose with a bark-like laugh. "And ten of the worst."
"Tell me about it, honey." Marge cackles until it becomes a hacking cough. She's on her second cigarette.
"We'd get drunk and talk for hours, me and her. In between doing the other. We were keen on each other somethin' fierce." Hubie hugs himself, a faraway look in his eyes. "Then one day she takes off with my younger brother and there I am. No kids, no family, just the bums twice a week in AA. Then I get to come to work with a bunch of punks with their pants around their asses and funny hair." He motions at The Burg's Mohawk when he says this, then realizes his mistake.
"No offense, Bird," he says.
"Maybe a sliver," she says, and winks.
Suddenly: a voice in a bullhorn. "Hubert Siskel," it says. "What are we doing here, sir? Come out with your hands on your head and the hostages intact."
"Intact?" says Marge. "For Christ sake, leave us intact!"
Hubie continues on, unfazed. "Why did I bring you down here? Hell, I don't know. Someone to talk to?"
"So we'll talk," says The Burg. "I'm thinking I should hook you up with my grandma. When you get out of jail, that is. She's my soul mate, you know. My grandpa use to treat her like shit, but he's dead now. And she's much happier."
Marge's cackle-cough fills up the tight space. "Funny how that works," she says, wheezing from the exertion.
"He was a mean drunk," says The Burg. "You weren't a mean drunk, were you Hubie?"
He thinks for a moment, squinting, then shrugs. "I had my moments, missy. Mostly I was just a lush."
There's an awkward moment of silence and so I say, "My Grandpa Joe died Sunday. His funeral is tomorrow. For the last year he didn't know who anybody was."
"Probably knew more than you think," says Marge. "I'll tell you a story, kid. 'Bout a man I knew very well-"
The door bursts open and a battering ram clangs to the floor. The helmeted cop steps in and aims his long gun at Hubie. Hubie freezes, then eyeballs the Luger, inches from his hand.
"DON'T DO IT!" the cop shouts, finger curled around the trigger.
Hubie repeats the process: gaze to the cop, then to the Luger. His eyes widen, breathing quickens.
He seems, suddenly, convinced.
This is going to happen, I think, watching his hands for the slightest of movement.
The Burg whispers, "No, Hubie, no."
Hubie blinks away a bead of sweat. "I'm not going to prison," he says quietly.
"Don't blame you there," says Marge.
"I WILL END YOU!" the cop shouts. Hubie nods, understanding the consequences.
This is it, I think. A man is going to die.
A shot is fired and everyone at the table ducks, including Hubie. Amid the chaos the cop steps forward and grabs the Luger off the table.
"Game over," he says.
Another cop enters the room, a little guy holding a pair of handcuffs.
"Good work, Mendenhall," he says. "Crazy old fucker was gonna make a play."
"There's no need for that," says Marge.
"Shut your fucking mouth," shouts the little cop, red-faced and spitting. "And put that fucking cigarette out."
Marge takes a final drag and mashes the cigarette into the table. "Fuck fuck fuck," she says, staring him down. "You ever hear of a Napoleon complex, officer?" Beyond the little cop Dirk stands in the doorway looking angrily at the scorched tabletop. I get the feeling none of us will be back at the Big Burger after tonight, and that's fine with me.
The little cop finally gives up on Marge and turns his attention to Hubie. "Up," he says. When he doesn't comply, the little cop yanks Hubie out of his chair, pulls his arms behind him and slaps the handcuffs on his wrists. As Hubie is being led out of the room, The Burg goes to the little cop and offers a man-hand.
"Thank you, officer."
The cop hesitates, looking up into her lime-greens. Then he puts his hand in hers and The Burg smiles nicely and squeezes down and the little cop makes a face and kind of twists to the side and a noise escapes his throat. The Burg releases her grip and holds the little cop's eyes as he flexes his hand at his side and clenches his teeth and generally attempts to hide his discomfort.
"Thanks again," she says.
Outside the restaurant, The Burg agrees to be interviewed by a forty-something television reporter with skin like frosted glass.
"We're standing next to the Big Burger with seventeen-year-old Denise Burgan, who's worked at this franchise for two years." As the reporter talks, I keep expecting her face to slide off. "Young lady, tell us what happened in there tonight."
"A good man was swallowed by corporate America."
The reporter nods her head and turns to the camera with her Serious Reporter Look.
"Swallowed É by corporate America. Tell us what you mean, my dear."
"I mean this," says The Burg, and flips off the camera, Johnny Cash-style, face in a sneer, two front teeth dug into her bottom lip, frozen in place just before the fuck you. The Burg has this poster of Johnny on her bedroom wall and she replicates it perfectly for the viewing public, holding her pose until Glass Face is forced to respond.
"And there you have it," she says. "Anarchy reigns at the Big Burger."
"This is my sixth funeral," says The Burg. "I love 'em, except for that whole dying thing."
We're side by side in the funeral home. Grandpa Joe is laid out in the box looking fake and waxy. I'm humiliated for him. I don't understand the tradition.
"It's demeaning," I say.
"He could care less," says The Burg. "But it makes the rest of us feel a little more alive."
I'm glad The Burg is here. I'm glad we got high beforehand. We talked about getting a new job together, perhaps at a convenience store where we can pilfer tiny bottles of booze.
But as we walk to the pew I find myself embarrassed by the size of her hips and ass, far and away the biggest part of The Burg. I watch her massive ass sway and know I have no right to feel this way. I mean, I'm no prize, unless zitty, pale and scrawny is your thing. The Burg can wrap a man-hand completely around my bicep. I'm sure that's a real turn-on.
We take a seat next to my mother and her latest boyfriend, Carl, a balding psychology instructor at the community college. With Carl, I believe Ma is trying to turn over a new leaf. Unlike the brooding bad boys she typically dates, Carl smiles regularly and enjoys trivia games and Earl Gray tea mixed with gin. He'll stop me on my way out the door and ask how I'm going to change the world today. Pretty irritating.
So they have this funeral. A preacher I don't know talks about Grandpa Joe's life in general terms, and by general I mean it could be anybody's life. You can tell he doesn't know Grandpa Joe from Adam, the way he keeps screwing up the details. He even calls him John at one point. I end up fazing him out and thinking my own thoughts about Grandpa Joe. How he taught me to fish and never got angry, not once, not even when I threw my pole in the water. How he took me to air shows and bought me savings bonds every year for my birthday and once, when filling in for Ma at parent-teachers, threatened to garrote the middle-school counselor who tried to put me in special ed. ("He ain't ridin' no goddamn short bus," said Grandpa Joe, and that was that.)
After paying my mental respects, I spend the rest of the service stealing glances at The Burg's black skirt riding up her legs and imagining what's under there, big ass or no.
When it's over, Mom and Carl head off to the tavern and The Burg drives us back to the house in her rusty, oil-spewing hatchback. ("The only thing my old man ever left me," she says, "other than my size.") We smoke a joint and talk, sitting Indian-style on my bed. We laugh at the results of her career assessment: Nurse. She describes her older brother's latest letter from a war-torn country. Then, when there's a break in the conversation, I take the opportunity to tell her that Hubie Siskel is no hero, no matter how you slice it. She nods and bruises my shoulder.
Presently her skirt is bunched up around her waist and I find myself staring.
"Technically I'm a virgin," she says, "and plan to stay that way. But anything else is fair game."
We put our tongues together. The truth is, I've only been with two girls. I made out with Judy Platte on the gym dance floor for an entire slow song. And then, three months later, Angie Outland let me peel her clothes off and climb aboard, but it ended there in relative disaster. I don't tell this to The Burg, though I get the sense she knows the deal.
She reaches into my lap, unzips my slacks and pulls it out. She does this the way she does everything, without hesitation. It doesn't take long. We're still making out when I come. She wipes her man-hand on my dress shirt, first the palm, then the back, and I laugh nervously. I'm encouraged she didn't react one way or the other to my manhood, but I'm also worried that maybe I've grossed her out.
But The Burg lies back and closes her eyes.
"Your turn," she says.
Andy Henion was born the day before man landed on the moon and has felt a bit flighty since. He lives on a cold, economically ravaged peninsula with people and animals. His fiction has appeared, online and print, in Poor Mojo, Word Riot, Pindeldyboz, Spork, Ink Pot, Storyglossia and the Chamber Four Fiction Anthology.
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