Chicken Nuggets or Bust (Writer’s Digest Short Story Contest Winner)
Despite all the purple air fresheners dangling from the rearview mirror, the inside of the car reeked of oil. The engine grunted. Summer constantly fidgeted with the clutch of her old black Cougar, which moved like it was moments from falling apart.
“Don’t worry, it always makes that noise,” she said.
I didn’t believe her. Not because I didn’t trust her, but the worried look on her face betrayed her words.
Somehow, we made it to a strip mall in one piece.
There was a chain gym, a Panda Express, and a few other typical strip mall stores, not to mention a few palm trees to remind everyone that this was California. The parking lot wasn’t full and there weren’t many people walking around the stores, one of the benefits of visiting a strip mall during a weekday afternoon. Despite the time, there was one long line of cars nearly pouring onto the streets. All wrapped around a small white building, But it wasn’t just any small white building.
It was the Mecca of fast food joints.
The one place I had always wanted to try but never traveled far enough West to experience.
People exploded out of the In-N-Out Burger, blowing into their bags to cool their scalding-hot fries. The impatient tossed their fries into their mouths only to have them bounce around inside, burning their cheeks with every bite.
“Drive-thru or dine in?” Summer asked when we pulled towards the longest fast-food drive thru line I had ever seen.
“Might be quicker inside.”
“I don’t know, dude.”
“I hate drive-thrus,” I said.
“That seems crazy.”
“You have no idea.”
Summer jerked the wheel toward the endless row of cars. “If you don’t tell me why, swear to Christ, I’ll pull into this line.”
“They’re called fast-food joints, but it’s never fast,” I said. “And they always mess up your order. You can’t get back in line, especially with a line like this. The whole point is to not leave my car, and to eat quickly.”
“Alright,” Summer said.
“I’ve had bad luck with drive-thrus and I don’t want to spoil this. I’ve waited a long time.”
“We’ll dine in.”
She pulled into a parking spot and the Cougar sputtered off.
“At least we’ll have full bellies if we’ve got to push her,” Summer said.
I pulled open the glass door and was immediately in a line. It was utter chaos inside the In-N-Out. The amount of humans in the building must have violated the fire code. Everyone devoured burgers or waited impatiently for their food. Behind the counter dozens of employees rushed around with trays of food and others took orders. Eager people stood over people eating… stalking them… ready to pounce as soon as a table became available. A few poor souls ate on top of trash cans, while people with no food sat at tables, holding them for some time.
“You shouldn’t be able to do that,” I said.
“Do what?” Summer asked.
“Sit at a table without food.”
“That’s called planning ahead,” Summer said.
Outside of the restaurant people ate food while standing. “It’s hoarding.”
“Maybe, but it’s better than having nowhere to sit.”
As we inched closer to the counter, the faint sizzling of burgers on the grill and the splash of a fryer catching a basket of freshly cut potatoes drowned out all the chattering people. The In-N-Out employees wore white paper boat hats with red-and-white aprons and uniforms. Some staff shouted out numbers. Three cashiers took orders. Cooks flipped burgers. Runners captured the hamburger meat in buns and bagged the grub. When I reached the counter, Summer ordered first. I looked up at the menu, which only had a few items. It felt like a time capsule of the 1950’s. Simpler times, a handful of items, and young working kids trying to earn extra cash by flipping burgers.
An attractive young man welcomed me to In-N-Out and asked what I would like. I ordered a Double Double with fries and a medium drink. I paid my bill and he handed me an empty cup with red lines wrapped around it. Red palm trees danced around near the top of the cup.
Five rows of people jockeyed for position in front of the pickup counter, waiting to be served their fat and calories. Everyone sniffed their food before checking their bags’ contents. No one trusted the workers.
“Is it always like this?” I asked.
“Every time I’ve been.”
I squeezed through seven people just to get a Coke from the drink fountain. Summer looked around for a table.
“We’ll wait,” I said.
“Order number 68,” a worker behind the counter said.
He skipped order numbers 65, 66, and 67. The customers of those orders were easy to spot. They clenched their teeth, containing their obvious anger. They snarled, wondering how someone who ordered after them could get their food first. They crumbled their paper receipts, and paced, needing their food… and now.
The joint was a powder keg ready to blow with one missed pickle.
For fifteen minutes I paced, my stomach eating itself, my mouth watering as everyone around me ate the perfect fast food. Being hungry and teased with the smell of grilled burgers can turn any man into a monster.
“Order 85,” a young woman shouted. “Order 85.”
Finally my burger was delivered to me on a red tray. It was stuffed in In-N-Out paper with more than half of the burger escaping, flopping out, ready to be devoured. I placed my half drank Coke next to my fries, which were overflowing from a paper food basket.
As we made our way to find a seat, a couple got up and Summer and I dove onto the table. Across the restaurant, an older woman with no food sighed, looking at me and Summer disgusted.
“Lucky break,” she said.
“You know this is my first fast-food burger,” I said.
“I’ve seen you eat a burger before.”
“Not a fast-food burger.”
“Thirty-plus years. Zero fast-food burgers.”
“Get out of here,” Summer said.
“Chicken nuggets or bust, baby,” I said. “I’ve been saving myself for this place.”
“How did you know about a fast food joint 3,000 miles away from home?”
“I heard about this place when I was a kid.”
Summer laughed. “How did you hear about In-N-Out?”
“I read about it in a book. In-N-Out was the first drive thru in California. Now, it’s about to be my first fast-food burger.”
“You were a weird kid.”
I took my first bite of a juicy Double Double. Secret sauce oozed onto my hands. Onions and lettuce spattered onto my tray.
“Heaven,” I said
I took another bite.
My burger was practically gone before I tried a french fry.
The older woman who gave me a dirty look when I sat down now crouched over my table.
Her three kids were watching us, drooling with every bite we took. I took my time, savoring every flavor, making it last as long as I could. The mother glared at me, trying to use her demon eyes to put a hex on me to eat faster.
It only slowed me down.
I must have told Summer the burger was amazing at least a dozen times. I drowned the last of my fries in the leftover special sauce that found a home on my red tray.
“This scratched a three-decade itch,” I said.
“If only you were this dedicated in any other part of your life.”
“Lord knows what I’d accomplish.”
I slurped the last of my drink and placed it on my tray with the rest of my trash. As soon as I lifted a butt cheek off my seat, the mother of four, who spent the last fifteen minutes studying my eating habits, sprang into action. She slammed her hips into me and slid into my former seat. The blow forced me to stumble and nearly lose my balance. I regained my balance by placing a hand on the floor. I glared at the family. They chatted among themselves at their new table. They didn’t have any food. Or a care that I was nearly trampled. Before I could say a word, Summer pulled me by the arm out of the joint.
“Maybe we should go through the drive thru next time,” she said.