J a n u a r y   2 0 0 4

Guest Writer

Before the world turns wild and strange
Super Burger
by Kristin Hilton

uper Burger is a small building, white with a red roof, only a sidewalk's width distance off the scarred asphalt of Main Street in Banks, Oregon. Inside, the white ceiling and the white walls and the white floor seem to fold in on you as if you are in a shoebox. The ceiling is very low.

Gabriel, seeming pressed down by it, walks stoop-shouldered and turns his head down and to the side when he wants to look upward. He has been here all afternoon, taking orders, punching the cash register and making milkshakes. He also takes the food out to the tables. Easy enough.

The place, maybe ten feet wide, twice as long and with eight tables, is small. Gabriel is 20, has slightly African American features, deep, tan skin and black hair. He is lean, with long arms, legs and fingers – the fingers like separate, sentient beings, always moving.

He addresses each customer as they come in, "Hey! What can I get for you?" While he takes the order, he slides in as many personal questions as time will allow. At the counter now, he is taking the order of a stocky, bearded man wearing jeans and a plaid work jacket, open to reveal a red T-shirt.

"What size of shake? Sure, sure. I see you're wearing a Chief's shirt. Ever been to Kansas City?"
The man allows that he's been there once. As money changes hands, the man reveals that he once drove semis cross-country, but now he's married and his wife likes him to stay put.

The cash register chirps and the afternoon sun begins to slant through dirty windows, bathing the man's jacketed back in light. He pockets his change and seats himself at a table strewn with newspaper pages. Nothing is cooked quickly at Super Burger. But it's always white and warm in here, close around you, with newspapers to read and Gabriel to talk to.

It's not too clean, not too dirty and smells like beef frying but not like grease. The people inside take turns staring at each other, peacefully seated at the little tables, peacefully chewing, peacefully slurping milkshake up through red and white straws. Gabriel is often the only one standing. That's the way he likes it.

There are five customers seated around the restaurant on this day at 4:15 in the afternoon. Two old men, very paunchy in the belly and under the chin, sit at a table at the window that looks south, down Main Street. If you follow that road, you can get to USBank, Jim's Supermarket and Starnight Video in under a half-mile. Keep going and you might end up in Portland, Forest Grove or Tillamook. Beyond that ... well the world just turns wild and strange, doesn't it?

Just farther away from Banks.

On the opposite side of the room are a middle-aged woman and a little girl, perhaps seven, with a sunburn spilling across her nose and cheeks. The last customer is the man waiting for his chocolate milkshake, the man who has been to Kansas City and had a gander at Arrowhead Stadium. He opens up a section of the paper.

Gabriel watches him while finishing the milkshake. The noise of the shake machine creates no disturbance at all – no one looks up, no one is bothered. Gabriel puts a plastic lid on the shake and wraps a napkin around the cup. He lays a straw, still in its paper wrapper, across the top of the shake and walks toward the customer who is still reading the paper.

Gabriel does not say, "Here you go" or "Your shake is ready." He says, over the top of the paper, "Did you read where it says that Iran has more people than North Korea? It does. I never knew that."

The man looks up, nodding, but obviously surprised – if not by the statistic, then at least by the sudden interruption. He takes the shake carefully, keeping the napkin tight around it, keeping the straw across the top like a compass. He says "thank you" twice, goes out the glass door, walks down the old sidewalk.

Gabriel watches him through the window until the man has passed beyond a tree and can no longer be seen. Slowly, Gabriel returns to his place behind the counter and starts to wipe it down. He peers at the woman and little girl, he glances over at the old men.

One of them is talking loudly to the other. "You remember that gal. That gal Valerie what went off with that Zachary fella."

"Heh? Vackary? Don't recall no Vackary."

"Not Vackary – Valerie. Valerie, that gal I was stuck on."

"Oh, her. I liked her. I woulda married her for five dollars!" He slaps his knee, laughing. His face is as red as a party balloon and with his beard growing in a white crescent under his mouth – no moustache – he looks like an old sea-captain. He has his back to the window, leaning against it, very comfortable. "I got to go," he says with regret.

"Yeah, it's about that time," replies his companion. Neither of them moves.

"I got to go," the sea-captain repeats a few minutes later. "Hey, Gabriel! I got to go!"

"Do ya? Where you off to?" Gabriel stops wiping down the counter, waiting for an answer. The old man grumbles something unintelligible and Gabriel laughs.

Outside the window, a log truck rumbles by, then another, then a kid on a four-wheeler. The light through the windows keeps shifting, following clouds too high to see from inside the shoebox. The old man slaps his hand down on the table.

"I got to go! I owe it to myself and my integrity." He struggles to rise, feet sliding out from under him; he struggles to bend his knees.

Gabriel puts down his wet rag, becoming perfectly still as he watches the old man sway and groan, huff and creak to his feet.

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