The Last Burger

By Sam McNeal

 

My truck smelled like bliss and hamburgers while we idled alone in the drive through
lane. The attendant passed off the burger to me, and I hurriedly unwrapped it from the damp
paper before passing it, now unobstructed, to Frank, my large brown Labrador. Frank ate the
whole thing in one bite. I should have told him to slow down. I could have torn the burger
apart and fed it to him bit by bit, but then he might have realized something was different.
Couldn’t he see that this was not our normal visit to McDonald’s and couldn’t he see that I
wasn’t smiling and couldn’t he see that the boys weren’t here next to him?

Sitting out in the empty yellow light of a mostly vacant parking lot, Frank and I were
left with the silence of a running engine and the smell of pine needles. He looked at me now
with a confident grin that showed neither fear nor apprehension. Now was the time, had Hud
and Paul been there, that we would get out of the truck, walk across the street, and throw a
tennis ball for Frank in the sliver of light that stretched over the street and onto the grass. It
was just what we did on Friday nights until I couldn’t anymore.

The bark beetles had come at an undetermined time from an undetermined place.
Undetermined by me, anyway. They had come quickly, and by the time someone told me the
town had an infestation, pine trees were already starting to fall. Two years after that, the
place looked naked. The pretty brown-red trunks and moss-green branches that once hid the
ugliness of unkempt cabin homes, boats rusting in driveways, and unlandscaped properties
were made obvious to even those who weren’t paying attention. And with our trees, so went
my work. No one was building because no one was buying because nothing looked pretty.

Recently — it feels recently because I try not to look at the change in my boys’ haircuts
or the shrinking of their clothes around their growing bodies — we stopped getting four
burgers, one for each of us and one for Frank, every Friday night because recently my wallet
ceased to have cash in it. I didn’t used to know how many gallons of gas were in my tank
(eighteen) or how many miles to the gallon I got on average (fifteen) or how much it cost per
mile to drive as calculated by the library’s subscription to Consumer Reports (one dollar and
thirty-four cents). I didn’t used to know how much our dog food cost either, until yesterday
I was told by the cashier at the pet store that I didn’t have twenty-two dollars and sixteen
cents on my card.

I got out and Frank followed, scampering over the bench seat and out into the yellow
light of the McDonald’s arches. He walked in circles around me as I stood still, looking into
the brightly-lit seating inside. There was only one person inside, a man who looked like me.
He was wearing a dark green flannel, but his fit him, and he wore a blue baseball cap and
blue jeans. From outside, he looked clean in the safe fluorescent lighting and he sat back in
the booth, facing me but not looking at me, and he looked pleased with himself. He looked in
control with his burger, fries, and soda on a red tray in front of him.

Frank had stopped circling and was sitting between me and the open door of the car.
I sidestepped him and got into the car and closed the door. Frank didn’t even get up, just
turned his head to look at me in disbelief. I looked at the man inside again. I like to think he
looked like me, but wasn’t me because he came out after I drove away, saw Frank sitting
there, and picked up where I’d left off.