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Thursday, April 5, 2012
Welcome to Rocket's Burger Shack
[This is the first of a ten-story cycle I wrote a little over two years ago. All the stories are set in or at least have some slight connection to the same fast food restaurant.]
While they lived they were his creatures, his rule over them absolute. He had brought them to life, and he could destroy them at any moment, in any manner he chose.
Or so he told himself when he grew sick of the world. Both worlds, really—the one he had been thrown into at birth, which became more difficult to navigate with each passing year, but also, inevitably, the one he had created, closely modeled on the first except for the fact that it was completely under his control, subject to his every whim. At least, such was the belief he clung to like a shipwrecked sailor to a floating spar, even on days when it was a toss-up which world was more obdurate and bent on driving him mad.
Today was a good example, his usually controlled world set at odds by the “rebellion,” as he viewed it, of Mona. He had given the bitch a heart of granite and no conscience whatsoever. He had put this con woman extraordinaire on a crooked but very broad road of deception and chicanery, a brilliant criminal career within her reach. She was not supposed to fall in love. --That is to say, she was not supposed to indulge in the self-deception of fancying herself in love: Mallory didn’t believe love existed and did not countenance it among his people, who were known for their toughness, independence, nonchalance, and for laughing at the slightest hint of sentiment. They flourished by deceiving others, but they themselves remained clear-headed, clawing their way over weaker mortals to achieve worldly success as measured in visible increments--expensive cars, clothing, watches and luggage, unlimited foreign travel, and plenty of gourmet dining accompanied by copious amounts of alcohol. Such was the world he had created, and while it had its critics they were on the outside. If one got inside from time to time, he didn’t last long, and that was how Mallory intended to keep it. Now for Mona, of all people, to stray so far over the line! Well, she would have to be eliminated, no two ways about it.
Mallory lifted his head from his hands and locked his fingers together, elbows still on the table. He was almost always the first breakfast arrival at this unremarkable fast food restaurant, and now he looked up and off into the far corner where a television set droned and chattered continuously, bringing disaster from all corners of the world. The bad news coming from the screen was almost a relief because he was not responsible for any of it and could not be expected to fix any of the problems thus brought to his attention. He had not robbed that bank, driven the car in that fatal accident, ordered troops in the jungle to kill. He was not a politician or a doctor; he had no duty to govern or cure. Weather news was even better: no one could possibly be held responsible for that! Mallory took a series of deep breaths and let himself become lost in the succession of images, one unrelated story following the next, none demanding anything of him.
As the dark of early morning gradually gave way to light, other people claimed booths and tables between Mallory near the door and the television in the corner. Three white-haired men, “senior citizens” (that is, old enough to qualify for the 50-cent cup of coffee before 9 a.m.), took one end of the only long table, leaving empty chairs at its other end. Mallory recognized them. The trio arrived daily between eight and nine o’clock, Sundays no exception, and stayed until almost noon, enjoying endless refills. Somehow the management tolerated them, and Mallory had picked up the idea that one might be the owner’s father-in-law. Sometimes all three men looked up silently at the television together for a few minutes, and when they did, for some reason they reminded Mallory of geese. Then one would shake his head and laugh or exhale sharply in disgust or shout angrily in disbelief, even slamming a fist on the table, uttering pointed remarks on whatever news story had just aired. The others would chip in their two cents’ worth, and the three would either argue or agree, but either way their table would be noisy for a while until they once again fell silent.
Across the room, an overweight man sat alone in a window booth with a big breakfast order. In the booth behind him, an attractive middle-aged woman in a dress and tailored jacket and a somewhat younger man in a sportcoat conferred over folders and papers, sipping coffee as they talked. The man nodded and smiled frequently, Mallory noted. Eager to please, he thought dismissively. Pussy!
Directly in front of the television a mother with two children sat immobile while her two young boys wrangled over their food. The mother, like Mallory, seemed to be using the television to escape her private world. As he recognized his commonality with the woman, he lowered his head back into his hands and shut his eyes again, returning to the other world. He had work to do.
His coffee was cold in its styrofoam cup, and he’d had his limit of refills (two), but he didn’t come here for coffee as much as to escape what he always remembered his mother referring to in despair as “the four walls!” and to prove to himself that he could conquer each new day by molding his people and his world into the trademark shape his admirers had come to expect. That was the challenge today, and it was always the challenge. Though new each day, it was also the same, day after day.
In the beginning, as a young man, he had written longhand on yellow legal pads, working late at night in a series of dingy rented apartments, drinking whiskey and smoking endless cigarettes, sometimes only falling into bed with the dawn. Now, a grey-haired workhorse, he began his labors at six in the morning, on a laptop computer, at a fast food joint half an hour from the big house he still could not bring himself to call his “home,” though the architecture magazines loved it. Between six and twelve o’clock he allowed himself no more than three cups of coffee. Cigarettes, nevermore! But for all the apparent differences in his habits over the years, nothing essential had been altered. If anything, the shape of his work had carved an ever-deeper channel over the course of his career.
His world was peopled by hard-boiled, maladjusted neurotics and psychopathics. Among this population there was a lot of obsessive-compulsive behavior and a lot of violence, both ritual and random. In the end a rough justice was always meted out, and yet his readers always had the sense that if some very small, almost microscopic detail had been altered, criminals and avengers could easily have exchanged roles. They were not different from one another at all, just playing on different teams. His admirers loved this aspect of his work, while readers who hated it never read beyond their first Mallory. But that was it: his books were known quantities, brand-name products, and his name was the brand. It was like the coffee or the burgers at Rocket’s Burger Shack: they weren’t a great restaurant experience, but you knew ahead of time what you were going to get, and that’s what you came for, so you were never disappointed.
Impatiently, Mallory wracked his brain for a way to destroy Mona. A simple search-and-replace would remove every mention of her name, but the problem would remain, since the problem was with her, not her name. At the other end of the range of solutions was the possibility of deleting the entire manuscript. (Strange word, he mused, momentarily distracted, for something not handwritten and not even on paper, as his old typewritten “manuscripts” had been.) Destroy his work! Only once in his life had he taken that drastic step, and his present anger at Mona surged with the remembrance. That she should push him to this, to even considering this, though it would mean her total annihilation!
Women were always problematic, and Mallory had wished more than once that he could construct a world without them, but his attempts had always been unsuccessful. The universe went flat, its action became mechanical and overly predictable without the plot-advancing mutual incomprehension that men and women brought to their interactions. So Mallory compromised. He gave his women unbelievable beauty and overwhelming powers of seduction, leaving them in every other characteristic indistinguishable from his men—grasping, opportunistic, amoral, heedless of others, and complete strangers to remorse. “Sociopaths,” one critic called his characters, “set loose in a dystopic universe.” Mallory’s feelings weren’t hurt. His sales soared in the wake of the review.
He couldn’t call the problem with Mona one of betrayal. Mallory’s people were always betraying one another. No, it was her weakness that Mallory’s world could not tolerate. Any feeling that pushed self-interest to the background was weakness and a betrayal of self, according to Mallory’s grand design, and even a momentary slip doomed a character to elimination. After all, Mallory would not be the only one to notice that new, soft look on Mona’s face or the way she held the phone too long in her hand after Dan had already hung up. “Uh-oh!” his readers would think at that point in the story, picturing Mona gazing out the window without seeing the scene before her. “She’s a goner!” And since her pernicious and seemingly self-willed straying from the road laid out for her didn’t look as if it would be momentary, her elimination would have to be swift and unequivocal, bloody and gruesome and utterly original in execution. Mallory’s people knew the rules.
If women were a general problem in the wider world (as Mallory was convinced they were) and Mona the current specific problem in his controlled universe, what was the link between the general and the specific cases in the two worlds? He hated like hell to face it head-on, but the answer was staring him in the face: Mona couldn’t help falling in love with Dan because (a) Dan was Mallory’s alter ego, (b) Mona was based on Mallory’s mistress of almost three years, Peggy, and (c) although Peggy tried her best to hide it, even Mallory could see that Peggy was in the grip of certain biological and social female imperatives and that she had fixated on Mallory for their execution in fantasy, if nowhere else. He was sure of it. He would have staked his life that she fantasized about a wedding, married vacations, even children. He tried telling himself that she probably couldn’t help it, any more than a kleptomaniac could help shoplifting, but it was hard for him to maintain such a generous view this morning in light of the infection having spread to Mona. But how had it spread to Mona? He clenched his teeth at this unbidden question.
The bizarre and maddening truth was that Mallory could not control every aspect even of the world he had created. From time to time, inexplicably, one of his invented people took the bit in his or her teeth and struck out for the woods, running wild, as it were. It infuriated Mallory whenever it happened. Damn these people! But he always had the last word. That was how it worked, because his people would never have existed except for him.
Mona, now, was the closest he had yet come to creating the perfect woman. As independent, as cunning, as ruthless as any of his male characters, unbelievably gorgeous, she had already in her debut appearance provided several of those male characters with to-die-for sex. (Two had died for it--with nothing to regret, in Mallory’s opinion). Finding himself somewhat weary of the Dan character after living inside him through eight successful and completely formulaic novels, Mallory had begun to let himself dream of grooming Mona to take Dan’s place. The idea excited him, made his breath come faster and sharper. It would make his harsher critics sit up and take notice, too, he thought, narrowing his eyes with anticipatory satisfaction at the calculation that, for him, was never far from arousal. Mallory writes a female protagonist! Mallory breaks new literary ground! Literary? Well, they might say that someday, he told himself. But that dream was barely hatched before Mona developed her unforgivable feet of clay. Now she could never graduate to main character status. Hell, Mallory couldn’t even keep her around for the last page of this one novel, the way she’d turned out! After such a promising entrance, her development pissed him off no end.
Mallory was suddenly distracted from the problem of Mona by a new arrival to the morning breakfast scene and an unfamiliar electric charge to the atmosphere. No wonder! Haughty and statuesque, with black hair flowing down her back past her waist in a loose braid, wearing (his eyes were drawn to her feet to begin the visual inventory) high-heeled boots, tight jeans, what looked like a real fur jacket and wrap-around sunglasses, this woman looked like no one he had ever seen before, here or anywhere else. Holding a styrofoam cup of coffee in one hand and a black attaché case in the other, she stood stock-still for what seemed an eternity before striding to and sliding into the seat of the booth directly across from Mallory. He sat transfixed. St. Theresa visited by the Virgin Mother could not have been more so. His new character! The replacement for Mona! He forced himself to stop staring and began tapping at the keys of his laptop, recording a description of the beautiful stranger, already brainstorming a way to introduce her into the story.
Meanwhile, the stranger placed her attaché case on the table before her and unzipped it, removing her own laptop computer. Her lips curved almost imperceptibly as she stared at the screen. Then she turned to gaze for a moment at Mallory, just as he was glancing up to take another look at her. She placed her fingers purposefully on her keyboard, and Mallory’s two worlds went black suddenly and simultaneously.
Deleted, he never knew what hit him.
- P. J. Grath, 2010