Carl was spending most of his time at home watching too much television and too many commercials since losing his job. Every eleven minutes his attention was overtaken by images of juicy meat patties sizzling over open flames and bouncing on beds of crisp, green lettuce, slices of ripe tomatoes, onions, and whips of mayo, always with the smiling face of the red-bearded king waving his hand over the finished product. This gave rise to a ravenous craving for a flame-broiled Whopper, fries, and a milkshake.
Unfortunately, the city had banished the Burger King after years of war with the Golden Arches, leaving behind a few holdouts, hidden away in back alleys and beneath the city streets, serving their contraband flame-broiled flavors to the few still loyal to the crown. This is the reason why it took this long, weeks of exposure to the same commercial, for Carl to finally make the trip to the location beneath Macy’s in Herald Square, with a long-burning desire to purchase not just one but two Whoppers, large fries, and a vanilla milkshake, completely surrendering to the special deal, as advertised.
He entered through the glass door marked by a small Burger King logo on Broadway between the Sunglasses Hut and the first of many Macy’s windows and followed the blue arrows pointing downward, toward stairs that led to the Burger King counter shared by a Cinnabon cashier in a blue Cinnabon uniform.
Carl expected a dark, forgotten franchise, empty tables, faded signage, worn out trays, possibly, even cobwebs. But it was bright and alive, walls colored in bold red and gold. He joined the Macy’s employees in suits and plastic nametags, FedEx and UPS drivers, office workers in wrinkled shirts, traffic cops, meter readers, construction workers, dads in Mets hats, kids shouldering Spiderman knapsacks, standing not in a line but in a crowd awaiting the attention of the cashier in the orange and red uniform. The Cinnabon counterpart, a few feet away, alone and gazing at her phone.
Carl ordered quickly and confidently having memorized his lines and after a short wait for the white paper sack which was suitably warm to the touch, he took his seat at one of the high tables along the wall, near another glass door through which he could see the MetroCard machines and turnstiles to the F train. Once settled, coat and bag hanging from the back of his chair, he unfolded the top of the bag, releasing a meaty steam and then started on his first Whopper, carefully unwrapping it and taking a good-sized cold flame broiled bite that burst with tomato, onion, and mayo. He added a few fries into the chew and pulled on the straw for a cheek full of cold, sweet vanilla shake and was overcome with that rare feeling when the reality of something imagined exceeds the imagination itself.
“Excuse me, can you tell me where the bathroom is,” said a man entering through the glass door, addressing a wiry, dreadlocked employee who was sweeping the floor with a broom. The man had a large gut protruding from the front of a shiny metallic windbreaker and wore impenetrable shades covering his eyes. He had a curly beard and an Oakland A’s cap. “Hey, excuse me, young man, young man, can you point in the direction of the bathroom, please?” The kid kept sweeping. And then, much louder, he said “WHAT DO I LOOK LIKE? A ROBOT? I’M A CUSTOMER AND I NEED SERVICE.” The kid finally stood straight, turned around slowly and pointed a rubbery finger at the door beyond the high tables where there was a line. “Well fine then. That’s all I needed to know. If you don’t want to work, go home.”
The big man got online for the bathroom, facing Carl who was biting, chewing, looking off in the distance but seeing him in his peripheral vision having no idea what he was looking at through those dark shades. There were people going in and out of the bathroom and the line became shorter until finally the man got close enough to Carl, leaned over, and whispered, “Hey, you wanna buy a car?”
Carl swallowed and said, “How do I know you’re not a robot?”
“Haha, you heard that did you?”
“In fact, how do you know, I’m not a robot?” said Carl.
“You’re a funny dude but I’m serious about the car.”
“What kind of car is it?”
“Cadillac, barely used. Got a debt I have to take care of. Won’t cost you more than a thousand.”
“If I had a drivers license and knew how to drive, we’d be making a deal.”
“Oh man, another New Yorker denied the experience of the freedom only the road can provide.”
“I’ve read Kerouac.”
“Not the same as a Cadillac but okay young man you enjoy that Whopper. Those are the best.”
It was the big man’s turn for the bathroom. He went in, closed the door behind him and within seconds the door opened again and he walked out. Just enough time, Carl thought, to pick up whatever was left for him in there.
Carl took the last bite of his last Whopper, finished off the last of his fries, sucked nothing but air through the straw of his shake. Too much time on his hands, he thought. Need to get a job. Watch less television. Read more. Maybe buy that Cadillac and go on a road trip.