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Best Burger Ever

brendas

Brenda’s Bigger Burger circa 2012. The metal railing was added when a street widening took half the parking lot. Photo from an article by Dustin Bartholomew, November 8, 2012, in the Fayetteville Flyer, Fayetteville, Arkansas

Today was one of those days when I came face to face with the passage of time. In traffic at a stoplight, I studied my surroundings and realized that Brenda’s Bigger Burger property sat vacant with a big ‘SOLD’ sign on the parking lot. A pang of nostalgia twisted in my chest. I knew it had closed. I just hadn’t thought about what it meant.

Through no fault of its own, the place always marked a pivotal moment in my life.

I never knew Brenda’s Bigger Burger existed until December 1970. Never mind that it stood on the corner of 6th and South Hill, an intersection I had passed countless times growing up. Several blocks further down South Hill nestled the modest little white building where my parents dragged us kids to church every time the doors opened.

On this particular weekend, my church-going days had long since passed. Finally. Now at the end of my first semester back at university after nearly three years living in California, I sat in the front passenger seat of Sam Holloway’s white Ford Galaxie waiting impatiently for our food. I was starving.

In retrospect, I realize that my ravenous appetite had not just a little to do with my first marijuana ‘high’ the previous night.

Momentous enough in its own right, my initiation into the drug culture hardly topped the chart of radical changes that occurred that night. Even more staggering was the fact that I had unexpectedly become unfaithful to my husband.

I could lay all this at the feet of Sam Holloway, a friend of an old friend whom I’d encountered on campus just a few days earlier. Old Friend and I were both married, him in grad school and me finishing my bachelors. We agreed to get together sometime.

‘Sometime’ turned out to be one evening a few days later when he called and wanted to stop by with a friend. They brought a six-pack. I was on my second glass of Chablis.

When Old Friend and Holloway arrived stamping snow off their shoes at my carport door, I was baking banana nut bread to send to my husband. He was stationed at Clark Air Base in the Philippines earning a captain’s hazardous duty pay as a courier flying in and out of Southeast Asia with top secret missives. Our separation had begun in late September, an eighteen-months’ tour for him before he could get out of the military and enough time for me to finish my degree.

I’d been lonely. I’d fretted over whether to dally, an inclination I’d fought even while still in California. We’d been together five years, married for nearly three. We’d discussed new ideas like open marriage but hadn’t made any moves.

That doesn’t excuse what I did. In an open marriage, there would have been an agreement. This was more delicious and awful than that, unplanned, unexpected, and entirely outrageous.

Old Friend passed out on his fourth beer and snored at the end of the couch. Having no other furniture, I sat in the middle of the couch and Holloway leaned back on the other end, his hand-tooled alligator cowboy boots crossed at the ankle. Twirling one end of his elaborate mustache, he pulled a skinny yellow cigarette out of his jacket pocket and flicked his Zippo. Sweet smelling smoke spiraled from the tip.

Several minutes later, the ‘high’ hit me with a warm caress on the back of my neck. My forehead floated upward. Lights dazzled. Colors like the black and white plaid sofa and the big red and yellow candlesticks I’d made out of flower pots began to pulse. Even more intriguing were Holloway’s green eyes.

Incredible as we found it, we’d been born on the same day in the same town. His mother and my father both taught school at Rogers before we moved away. My father was remembered there, Holloway said.

It was the Chablis. It was the weed. It was the strange coincidence of our connections and the scintillating repartee that flew back and forth between us. It was a slice of time cut from both our regular lives and set aside for this experience.

The next morning every icy surface including the streets glistened in bright sunshine. The ground had been white with snow for two days. Just driving across town to Brenda’s had been an slippery adventure. He insisted on Brenda’s, so that’s where he took me.

The food came out steaming hot, a sizzling beef patty on a big round bun. My teeth sank into the burger and saliva instantly flooded my mouth. Yellow mustard! Fresh sliced onion! Dills lovingly arranged so that each bite included just enough pickle. Tomato when real tomatoes were all you could get.

The burger and fries came wrapped in thin tissue paper, enough layers that when Holloway spread out the fries on the seat between us, the fat didn’t seep through to the upholstery. Heaped in long limp strands, the fries were salty golden treasure.

My hands trembled as I ate. I savored my Dr. Pepper down to the last crunchy nugget of ice. For the third time in less than 24 hours, I died and went to heaven.

I broke two more promises before it all ended. One I broke immediately, my promise never to smoke cigarettes again. After we’d crumpled the mustard-stained tissue papers, Holloway pulled out his pack of Winstons. My brand.

The other, the promise to myself that I’d never do that again? I lasted ten days. The affair lasted a scant two months before we both moved on. The marriage lasted another three years.

When the day arrives that Brenda’s building falls before the bulldozer blade, I can tell you right now—I will shed tears. Not only for Holloway or what we had. Not only for the marriage or the man I never quite stopped loving.

My tears will also fall for the fact that there’ll never be a better burger than the one I ate that day.

[From an untitled work in progress which may or may not see print in my lifetime…]

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