My boss accused me of stealing his turtle soup.
Didn’t do any investigating. Just automatically pointed a finger at me like he’s some goddamn false accusation robot.
Apparently, he stayed up all night cooking it and he couldn’t wait for me and Will to try it. This morning he handed the Tupperware to me, went into Mr. and Mrs. Quin’s guest bathroom to snort arsenic, came out a few minutes later, and bam, no soup.
He went on this tirade. “How could you steal, especially here at the Quin’s house? We’re guests!”
“No, we’re not,” I said and laughed. “We’re their house painters.”
Will, climbing down the ladder, grimaced at Ruby and I, and dipped out to the backyard to smoke a cig and get the hell away from us.
Ruby shook his fist at me. “You know they own the Burger King down the road, right? They have clout. They could have us killed.”
“What the hell?”
“What if they find out that their employees are stealing from each other? They’d think you’d steal from them. They’d think you’d steal from their BK. They’d think you’d be the kind of person who’d fire up their workers about minimum wage and corporate slavery, working them into a frenzy and convincing them to help you burn down the Burger King.”
Will chuckled at us from outside the open sliding glass door and blew smoke inside.
“That sounds awesome,” I said. “Sign me up.”
“OOH I KNEW IT!”
I set the bucket of neutral gray paint on the floor of the master bedroom.
I held up my hands in surrender. “You caught me.”
Ruby shook as he hugged himself. “You’re also the kind of person who’d steal their dog, I bet.”
“OOH I KNEW IT! I’M KING OF THIS KINGDOM AND YOU DO NOT STEAL TURTLE SOUP FROM THE KING.”
So, as you can imagine, I was pissed at Ruby and am totally over working for him.
I got in my car and blasted off.
Going to find some new work in a new kingdom. I’m fine with having a king as long as the king isn’t a dildo.
On his first day at Mr. and Mrs. Quin’s, I presented Echo with my turtle soup.
I shoved it in his face and it sloshed around in its container.
It’s a secret family recipe.
I’m so proud of it. The pieces of turtle meat were perfect little cubes. The chunks of tomato and flakes of parsley sitting on the cubes formed the pattern of a turtle shell, like the turtle had fallen onto a cartoon conveyor belt, entered a thudding and steaming box of a machine made of purposeless gears and pistons, and exited as a dozen little turtle cubes.
Will was supposed to eat half of the soup but Echo, that fuck, ate the whole Tupperware’s worth of turtle soup as soon as I sauntered into the guest bathroom to snort some arsenic.
I threw open the bathroom door. Ready to dance and take total control of my old kingdom.
“Gimme that cuppa turtle,” Will hollered from the top of the ladder as he painted the crown molding.
“It’s gone,” Echo told him, conspicuously wiping his mouth and tossing the container into the trash.
“What the hell happened to it?”
“I don’t know.”
This is when my life changed and I went all gum-shoe on Echo’s ass. I was going to haunt this motherfucker until he admitted that he ate all of the turtle soup.
I stayed up all night cooking it for him and Will. The ingrate.
He’s more than an ingrate. He’s the kind of guy who would convince Mr. and Mrs. Quin’s Burger King employees to revolt and burn down their store. Echo is also the kind of guy who’d steal their golden retriever.
The swamp is my salvation, so far away from that bloody kingdom. The swampland is a barrier between me and that godforsaken neighborhood and Ruby’s little kingdom of neutral gray.
Ruby will eventually cover all of those McMansions sprouting up in the gentrifying neighborhood with neutral gray for the new-rich that inhabit those cold boxy houses.
Those homesteads are terrible. They look like low-rent apple stores.
One day house painters like me will steal your gray mercedes and crash it, steal your ben franklin stacks and burn them, and steal your low-rent apple store house and dismantle it.
I will steal your food and share it with my friends.
If you own a dog, I will steal it and raise it as my own.
You don’t deserve a dog.
My hands will be filled with broken, stolen objects and I will hand them back to you. Here’s the door handle of your mercedes e-class. Here’s a bag of ashes. Here’s the lens of your doorbell camera. Point it at yourself and may your paranoia and general busy bodiness be your undoing. May you call the cops on yourself.
“Sir?” the loud speaker crackled at me. “This is the Burger King drive-thru.”
“Why are you telling me all of this?”
“I don’t know. Gimme a large fry.”
I know that Ruby followed me here to the new kingdom.
He’s in that bush over there.
He wants me to park right next to him.
It’s chaos magick.
His invisible presence will set me down right over there after I grab this large fry from the window.
It’s all about will and intention. His intention is to get me over there so he can catch me talking to myself about the turtle soup that he thinks I ate. His intention is a big ball of swirling goop and his will is the subtle shaking of the bush’s branches. That shaking catches my attention without me knowing it and sets me down next to him and his peering peepers and cupped ears.
I’m back on the interstate, blowing past the exits and swampland. My sedan chugs. The engine is in worse shape than me. I roll down the window and light a cigarette, adding smoke to this green algae terrain. The car’s chugging turns to a clunk! clunk!
As if it inhaled some of my cigarette.
This transmission will surely rattle itself to pieces and drop from the undercarriage onto the concrete, the metal shards no longer serving the purpose of taking the power from the motor and transferring it to the wheels.
The metal shards become the obstacles in the road that cause the forty car pile up.
I cut the wheel and spin one hundred eighty degrees, not letting the delusion of a transmission collapse jangle and clank to an undoing that I know in the back of my mind would never really happen, and drive back to Burger King through opposing traffic.
As I sit here in this bush and subtly shake the branches, I know in my heart of hearts that Echo will spill the beans once he finishes second guessing himself and pulls back into this Burger King.
Echo, that fuck. Always calling me an Emeril emulator like it’s not something to be proud of.
What does he know?
He’s the kind of person who’d burn down a Burger King. He’s the kind of person who’d steal Mr. and Mrs. Quin’s golden retriever
Besides, I always playfully acknowledge that I am indeed an Emeril emulator by running into Mr. Quin’s guest bathroom, grabbing a fistful of parsley, chucking it at the bowl of jambalaya I was preparing, and screaming “Bam!” right before running back into the Quin kitchen chuckling, probably to not do arsenic.
Have some humility for Christ’s sake.
What does he know? Nothing.
If he knew something, he wouldn’t have stolen Will’s portion of turtle soup.
He thinks he’s going to find another house painting job. He says being a house painter is great if you’re a poor writer. It’s like having a benefactor because you get to be alone with your thoughts and audiobooks and podcasts.
No more customers.
No more people to deal with.
You know what I think?
I think he’s a chump and a wimp. Go get a real job, like at Burger King. The people’s work.
“Sir?” the loud speaker crackled at me. “This is the Burger King drive-thru.”
“Why are you telling me all of this?”
“I don’t know. Gimme a coke.”
The off-ramp sign directs me to a Burger King.
A new kingdom. Perfect.
After napping in my car next to Ruby’s bush, I’ll order a burger.
Wait. No money. Shit. I should have thought this plan through.
It wasn’t so much a plan as it was a rash decision. But what was I supposed to do? Ruby tried to stab me with a putty knife.
Not just any putty knife.
My own putty knife.
And Mr. Timothy Quin and his wife Teresa really did give me weird looks while I patched the drywall holes that were clearly the aftermath of one of Timothy’s violent rages.
“Most of these people,” the guy in the Bucs tee says as we sit in the plastic chairs with the TV blasting Elf at us, “are prone to violent rages. They all get pretty squirrelly right before dinner.”
The middle-aged man with no hair on the top of his head and curly puffs of hair sticking up around the sides that looked more like a wig than real hair giggled to himself in the same lilt every thirty seconds.
I wake up to giggling and find Mr. and Mrs. Quin sitting on a quilt next to the BK dumpster in matching blue track suits with their golden retriever sitting in the grass, its tongue rolled out onto the edge of the quilt. Between them are two whoppers.
What are they doing here?
Did they follow me?
Are they in cahoots with Ruby?
As the couple grasp their respective burgers and delicately unwrap them, the golden retriever bolts.
She hits the pavement and dodges a sedan swinging into the drive-thru line.
The couple calmly set their burgers onto their wrappers like a lady and lord to a pair of paper thrones.
Mr. and Mrs. Quin calmly stand and stroll to their dog who is sniffing an empty french fry container in the middle of the parking lot, distracted by the people food aroma. They beckon their dog to return to the quilt without words or hand gestures. They peacefully take opposite sides of the pooch and when they begin their fellowship back to their picnic the pooch follows without hesitation. The woman and man take their seats on the shorter lengths of the quilt across from each other and the golden retriever takes her seat on the grass beside the quilt. Before attempting to begin their lunch for a second time, Mr. and Mrs. Quin have a lengthy discussion about how they don’t trust the new painter, calling him too boisterous and obviously crafty and clearly out to steal their belongings.
And hand them back their belongings in the form of a pile of ashes.
They stop talking for a moment and, after the silence wears on too long for their comfort, pick up their cold burgers. They raise the greasy sandwiches high, praising the Celestial Mother and Her Golden Egg for the sustenance and before they have a chance to bite, the golden retriever bolts again.
Echo knows I’m watching him from this bush next to the drive-thru. What he doesn’t know is that this is my kingdom.
I’m going to trod right out of this bush and make my merry way into the establishment.
I’m going to start from the bottom and work my way to the top.
Bottom to top in one afternoon.
All out in the open for Echo to see.
Neutral gray. I’ll give him neutral gray. I’ll cover these orange walls with gray using my trusty sponge roller. I even brought my telescoping handle for those high walls. I even brought three dozen buckets of neutral gray paint.
He’ll be so mad. He’ll barge into my establishment. My kingdom. Where I make the rules. My prices. My style of participation. My neutral gray kingdom where he’ll be my serf.
He’ll confess alright. All serfs confess.
It’s a fact. Look it up.
Since prices and participation vary, as king I’m going to switch it up in here. No whoppers. No fries. No onion rings. No shakes.
Only turtle soup.
Echo will march inside and he’ll see me there behind the counter with my arms crossed and a big satisfied grin slapped across my face. He’ll demand to know why I followed him all this way.
Echo will do his little spiel about neural gray and how could you kill the orange and why did you try to stab me with my own putty knife and why would you let Mr. Quin do such a thing to me and the cognitive dissonance that is the king of my mind’s kingdom and why did Mr. Quin lock me in that room and how oh how could you let it happen. Oh my gawd, you Emeril emulator, you’re the king and that was your old kingdom of gray and this is your new kingdom of gray.
And after all that nonsense, you know what he’ll do? He’ll feel his little tummy rumble and because of corporate conditioning he’ll look up at the menu. Even knowing he hasn’t got the dough to back up his hunger. He’ll do it because that’s what little fucks like him are trained to do. He’ll look up at that menu like the pavlovian dog he is and he’ll see that every menu item has been replaced by EMERIL EMULATOR’S WORLD FAMOUS TURTLE SOUP.
Over and over.
The repeated words.
The repeated images of the conveyor belt turtle cubes slopping over the sides of the bowls.
The repeated lilt of me and my crew’s synchronized giggle.
The repeated faces of Will on everyone’s phones pointed at him, our hands extending as one multiversal telescoping roller handle, crashing into him.
“How could you do this to me?” Will says with a single tear streaming down his face in a display more powerful than any sobbing and blathering could be.
Echo will scream and shout.
NO GAWD NO! OKAY! I CONFESS! I CONFESS YOU BITCHES! I STOLE THE TURTLE SOUP!
“Sir?” the voice crackles at me.
“As I said before, this is the Burger King drive-thru.”
“Gimme a job application then. I got a kingdom to rule.”
I crawl over the center console, knocking pennies and bottle caps out of the tray, and lean out the passenger window.
“I can hear all of that,” I say to Ruby.
Ruby quickly pulls his head back into the bush. “No you can’t.” The leaves look like they’re sucking him into a nature portal and his face disappears.
He whispers something, but I can’t hear him.
Mr. and Mrs. Quin repeat their dog-retrieving routine of calm burger set down and cool, collected stand up. Only, the dog isn’t side-tracked by a fast food container.
The golden retriever, now known to me as Regal because its owners are screaming its name as they drop their experienced middle-aged stoic act and chase Regal into the busy street, has the biggest smile on her face and her tongue bounces up and down as she gallops through the traffic and dodges the frenzy of cars, owners, and concerned pedestrians who have joined the owners in their frantic jockeying and wailing.
Emeril emerges from the bush with his trusty sponge roller and telescoping handle in hand marching forward into the Burger King, ready to take over the new kingdom. He’ll be okay.
The dog will be okay. She will make it to that swamp behind that gas station across the street from the Burger King.
The couple in the matching track suits will be okay. They will return to the picnic without their beloved Regal and find that their whoppers are missing. Stolen. And they will thank the mysterious culprit as they come to their senses and realize that they are far too old to be punishing their bodies with fast food.
I will be okay. I will lick my fingers clean and drive onward into the swampland on the other side of that gas station across the street from the Burger King.
I find Regal frolicking in the trees chasing a butterfly and we rule the green beyond, side by side, man by man’s best friend.
Am I a painter? I don’t know. What makes a painter a painter? This is all supposed to come from the gut. Isn’t it coming from the gut when I admit these things to myself? That I I wanted and needed to be Echo? Not a man? Not a slender figure who needed to go with the flow and accept his circumstances? Not a blathering fool on the floor of the Quin family’s guest bathroom?
So, you know what Echo and Regal do? They come sashaying into my new kingdom like it’s their kingdom as I’m splashing neutral gray paint all over the orange walls of the BK. Some person who claims to be the manager, clearly a usurper of the throne, taps me on the shoulder and with this timid look on his face tells me he’s called the cops and if I don’t want to get in anymore trouble I should stop splattering paint all over the walls of the BK.
And Echo and that damn golden retriever say they know me and they can calm me down. Calm me down? Everyone else needs to calm down.
I say, “You guys can all take a flying fuck to the moon and calm the fuck down.”
Splash! Splatter! Fuck these orange walls! “This is my kingdom!”
And you know what happens next? Regal barks at me. Me!
“Shut up, poochie!” I yell.
“Hey, I’m with poochie,” the usurper says. Then he barks at me.
I bark too and then all of the BK employees bark at Ruby. It was beautiful. Totally fucking beautiful.
Ruby grabs another bucket of neutral gray and while staring into the manager’s eyes splashes the paint on the wall. Gray splatters onto the customers chomping away at their whoppers.
“Hey boss,” an employee yells from over the counter. The employee throws a bucket and the manager catches it.
Regal barks at this.
The manager squats next to the bucket and pries it open with his keys.
Orange paint. Bliss.
“Oh no you don’t,” Ruby says.
And the manager splashes orange on top of the dripping gray.
Regal barks again.
I yell to the employee, “Hey, you got anymore?”
He tosses a bucket and I catch it.
“Uh uh,” Ruby says and shakes his head. “No way.” He pries open another bucket and chucks it at the window, smashing it.
The customers scream and flee.
The manager yelps with delight. “Revolution! Rise up my fellow burger slingers! Rise up!”
Mr. and Mrs. Quin and a cop sashay into the Burger King.
“Hey, you fuckers,” Mr. Quin yells. “What is the meaning of this?”
And the cop doesn’t know what to do. He’s got his hand on his gun and he’s spinning around from Ruby to the manager to me to the employee in the back tossing boiling grease on the kitchen floor and lighting the building on fire.
“Is that my dog?” Mrs. Quin says.
Regal barks at her, saying yes please get me the hell out of here.
“Sorry Mrs. Quin,” I say and shrug my shoulders.
“Now see here,” Mr. Quin yells. “My house painter has it right. Neutral gray is the way to go.”
Mr. Quin grabs one of Ruby’s gray buckets and splatters it onto the dripping orange.
“Should I shoot all of them?” the cop asks Mr. Quin.
“Naturally,” Mr. Quin says with a no duh raise of his eyebrows.
Mrs. Quin pets Regal. “Good boy.” She raises one eyebrow at Mr. Quin.
“We’re through,” she says to Mr. Quin. “You can keep the mercedes, the ben franklin stacks, the low-rent apple store house, and that damned doorbell camera you use to spy on me and make sure I’m not fucking the Amazon delivery boy.”
The heat from the flames reaches us and we sweat like mad.
“But honey suckle,” Mr. Quin says and chucks a bucket of neutral gray at his employees, knocking one in the head.
The employee goes down and the manager rushes to his side.
“You sons of bitches!” the manager yells. He rips down the flag advertising the kid’s meal toys and dips it into the flames rising from the counter.
The flag catches and he waves it at the enemies. “FREEDOM!” The BK employees cheer and jump the flaming counter. The cash registers crash to the floor and break open.
Cash flies and catches on fire.
Ruby, Mr. Quin, and the cop slowly back away toward the exit.
The cop pulls his gun and fires warning shots into the ceiling.
Ruby chucks a paint bucket at the BK employees. “This man!” He points at me. “Stole my turtle soup.”
I punch Ruby in the arm. “Shut the fuck up.” I turn to Mrs. Quin. “Pardon me.”
She waves me off. “Not necessary.”
Mr. Quin lobs another paint bucket. “But honey suckle, can I at least keep Regal.”
“No. You don’t deserve a dog.” Mrs. Quin and Regal join the revolting side of the Burger King. “How can I help?”
Mr. Quin motions to the cop with his finger to his nose and then points to Mrs. Quin.
The cop nods and points at the Mrs. Quin. He fires. The manager jumps in front of her and takes the bullet in the arm.
“What the fuck?” I say and rush to the manager.
“Honey suckle, my ass,” Mrs. Quin says and drops to the manager’s side.
Regal growls at Mr. Quin, the cop, and Ruby.
Ruby yells, “What are you doing? Shoot them! Shoot all of them!” He lobs another bucket. It crashes onto recently waxed floor and explodes. Gray paint splatters the employees.
The flames grow and travel into the dining room.
The BK employees, dripping with gray paint, join me and Mrs. Quin and huddle around the manager. He looks up at us, an angry and determined smile on his face, and hand holding the gunshot wound that is spurting blood through his fingers.
We back away from him and with his flaming flag he lifts himself.
We turn to face our oppressors and take attack formation.
The manager lifts the flag to the Celestial Mother and Her Golden Egg and we pump our fists into the air as the flames surround us.
The whole joint smells like burnt beef and fries.
The manager yells, “REVOLUTION!”
Regal barks one sustained ferocious bark at the enemies.
And we rush Ruby, the cop, and Mr. Quin. They yank on their collars and go eeg err and flee from the burning Burger King.
Our enemies run for their lives and the Burger King burns behind us as we take to the streets as a unified mass of grease stains.
We take to the streets as a mass of paint splatters. We take to the streets as the used, the indentured, the oppressed, and the abused. We take to the streets as a unified mass of furry, barking, starved, fed up, unwashed laborers. And we are proud of our stink. I hope the whole world can smell us coming.
“Damn right,” the employee yells, crackling and echoing down the down road through the drive-thru speaker she has fashioned into a megaphone.
Chase Griffin is an individual unstuck in time and space, having accidentally tapped into the spooky action of the Patasphere. His life is now a mish-mash of layered recollections of what has and has not occurred. As he swings from one universe to the next on this wave of quantum debauchery his work finds its way to publications like Maudlin House, Funny Looking Dog Quarterly, and more. His debut novel, What’s on the Menu?, fell from a wormhole into the hands of Long Day Press.