The Price of a Burger

Hollywood Night


Yes, it’s ironic that I’ve titled a story thus, considering that I’ve been a vegetarian for fifty years, but…it’s not about me. This is a rewrite of one chapter from my latest novel, My Turn to Die, finished but not yet published. I submitted it to Switchblade: an Anthology of Noir, and it appeared in Issue #3. Over six months have passed since then, so the contract allows me to republish it myself, or submit it to another magazine, if I wish. I post it here as a sample of what you’ll see in the novel whenever it comes out. On the advice of one of my editors, I am shopping it around to agents. That slows things down.

If you like what you read here, you might like the rest of the stories in Switchblade. They’re hard, they’re tough, they’re smart. And it’s not al a maelstrom of testosterone: Switch has made a practice of publishing women who write noir as well. In our last group reading, we featured three women and only two men. Read “The Price of a Burger” below, then visit Switchblade. You’ll be sorry in a very good way.

For reasons you don’t need to know about, I was running around the night with my hair done up in pink-frosted blond curls, gelled into little cat claws all over my head. I am normally a regular-looking guy, and I didn’t change clothes or anything; I needed to look clueless for the business at hand. The business was done now, and I’d survived, but after I got back into my car I had the shakes. You know how they start up afterward, even when you think you’ve been Mr. Cool. So I headed onto the big empty freeway and started to drive off my nerves.

I found my way to the Hollywood Freeway and rode toward the gap in the hills that led to the “Movie Capital of the World,” where they kept the flow of dog food commercials, fistfight dramas, and cheap laughs spilling into the American swamp unabated. I crested the ridge in darkness, and the wind of my own motion whistled in the open windows of the car. It was only a minute before I saw the offramp into Hollywood and edged towards it.

I’m not sure why I didn’t just go home. Maybe I’d read too many Didion novels. I joined the traffic jam of taxis, tour buses, and rental cars and looked at the famous shit outside my windows. Souvenir shops, fake museums, and pornographic bookstores: this was what the world aspired to, and spent their money to visit. There was a parking space in front of a shabby burger stand. I pulled into it reflexively. A parking space to an LA driver is like a line at a grocery store to a hungry Russian: you just go for it. I supposed I should eat something. The burger stand was narrow, loud, and full of punk rockers. I held my blond-dyed head up high and marched in. The air smelled of old grease and cigarettes. The music was loud. No one bothered to notice me. It was perfect.

I sat at the counter. The only menu was one of those backlit plastic boards with slots for cheap black capital letters. Every item was misspelled, most likely on purpose.  Nothing seemed appetizing, but I had to eat. The counter girl came up to me. She had a shaved head and a big red heart tattooed onto her cheek. The heart bore the legend “Kafka” in lowrider script. I bet she knew how to spell all right. She smiled at my hair and asked what I wanted. I told her I didn’t know, and she said, “Coming right up,” and smiled again. Her smile showed a broken tooth. I played along and waited for my food. I’m still not sure what it was, but I wouldn’t recommend it. It plopped into my gut like so many road apples. A beer showed up next to  my plate, and I drank it. What the hell. I didn’t live in the Movie Capital of the World for nothing.

A girl of the category “Waif, Scrawny,” sat down on the stool next to mine. She nudged me with her elbow and asked if she could touch my hair. I said to go ahead, and she did. Her own hair looked like it had been styled by an eggbeater, but who was I to talk at that moment. She shouted “Cool!” over the thrash of guitars coming out of the loudspeakers. I smiled at her, and she smiled back. It was a pretty desperate smile. Someone else grabbed at my arm and pulled me around on the barstool. A skinny punk kid with hair bleached blonder than mine glowered at me from behind a network of tattoos. He had more graffiti on his face than a lot of back-alley fences.

“Bitch! You trying to hit on my girl? Bitch!” He moved his face up close to mine. I smelled a set-up.  I slid off the barstool and stood up. While I am by no means a bruiser, at six feet and 180 I’m not fragile either. He didn’t back off. The punk’s head came up to about my nose, so I stood up straighter to make sure he wouldn’t head-butt me. Just then a pair of arms came around me and pinned my own arms to my sides. The punk grinned. I did the only thing I could think of at the moment and pushed back hard, mashing whoever had grabbed me against the hard edge of the counter. I heard a faint squeak over the music, and the arms let go of me. This gave me a little room, so I kept my weight back, lifted my leg, and kicked Mr. Aggro in the chest. It wasn’t an elegant kick, it wasn’t even a real kick, more like a shove, but it propelled him backwards through the open door of the burger joint, backpedaling frantically to keep from falling. He would have been better off falling. Instead, he flailed into three Marines who were walking down the boulevard, knocking one of them into the gutter. The other two turned into scowling masks under their high-and-tight haircuts, and each grabbed one of Mr. Aggro’s arms and dragged him out of view. The third Marine pushed himself out of the gutter, looking wet and furious. I turned around to deal with whoever had grabbed me. It was the girl who had admired my hair, and she was crying. I left her alone. I asked the shaven-headed counter girl for the bill, and she shouted, “It’s on the house. I hope those two cockroaches never come back. Now get out before it gets worse.”

It was the most reasonable thing I’d heard all day. I got back in the car and headed home. The shakes were long gone. I checked the rearview, and saw a couple of motor cops ride right up onto the sidewalk where the Marines were still at work. . I don’t know why, but I started whistling.

I’ve got another, longer story, called “The Comforter,” in Switchblade #5. Don’t miss it.

Rick Risemberg