The Old Number 4 by Kent Lenz

She leans out the window to give a sack of burgers and fries to the four guys sitting in a rumbling out of date car–a Charger or Nova–that’s orange, rusty, or naked with primer. Her blonde hair comes loose from behind her ear as she takes the wad of cash from the hairy arm extended through the window.

It’s some kind of muscle car that’s been poked and prodded and twisted and tweaked and stared at all day until these beer-drunk brutes had stomachs growling louder than the idle they couldn’t get to quiet down. It’s just their mechanical, colicky baby.

Two burgers go flying over the front bench seat like UFOs across a sunset sky to the tag-a-longs in the backseat. She pops out of the window again to give that thick hand the change. Just as she starts to say the training-packet scripted thank you phrase, the engine roars that cry of unsettled belly, cutting off that phrase she says hundreds of times a night, “Y’all have a…”

I silently finish it for her from inside my own car, “…a burger-if-ic night.”

The brute car screeches as it turns onto the main street. It comes to a head-jerking stop at the traffic light as if it was surprised by the red glow of the red light splashed across the windshield.

The intercom crackles. “Welcome to Burger-if-ic. Home of the Texas Chili Burger. Whatch y’all havin’ tonight?”  The menu of numbered options with colorful pictures is never confusing for me. It’s always the same number with the same drink with the same total, and it’s comfort in a brown, grease-stained bag that’s always folded at the top with perfectly squared corners and handed off with her milky-white, ring-less hand. She has a way of gripping the bag that looks so effortless like a brief gust of wind could send that meal afloat all the way back to the house to land in its usual spot: on the end table that sits right between Mama’s recliner and my spot on the couch. Back to the house where Mama doesn’t have the energy to kill the roaches that have given up hiding in the dark corners. Back to where Mama’s medicine soaks up all the money we need to paint the house. Back to the house where I’ll be ignoring all this by grading my stack of essays on UFOs for my Conspiracy Theory course.

“Um, yeah, just looking…” The brute car interrupts again as it accelerates through the intersection.

“Sorry, hun, what’s that?” she asks.

“Oh, hey, is this Candice back there working all alone?”

“Well, I’ve got Penny dropping those fries just fine with me. Don’t you worry about me.”

The parking lot’s empty except for steady rumble of the mud splattered pick-up behind me.

“Well, that old Number 4 meal looks good.”

“Whatcha want to drink with that, hun?”

“Coca-Cola Classic, of course.”

“Well, Roger, I thought that was your car pulling in. C’mon around and meet me at the window with six dollars and thirty-five cents.”

The smell of the grill and the fryer can’t be sealed off by the sliding window with the note, “No Checks…Don’t ask” written in sloppy marker and faded by days of sun, taped to the inside.

Candice comes to the window, slides it open, and flashes that smile. It’s a moment to wait for all day; it’s a small moment that helps drown out the snores from down the hall at nights; it’s a moment to hold onto for a quiet deathbed.

“Six thirty-five, hun.”

I glance up to her eyes, and the quarter and dime clink, cling, roll on the pavement below. I feel my hand loosening as the small stack of bills almost whip away.

“Oh, no,” she says as she grabs the bills.

The light chime of warning sounds as the door icon lights up on the dash. A quick huff escapes my chest as the coins shimmer just out of reach. One more huff gets my tired hand close enough to reach.

“Oh, hun, I could’ve gotten those.”

“No, no, it was my fault. It’s my pleasure.”

“Now, where do you put all this food? Every night I work, you’re here to get this same thing. If I ate all this like you do, I’d be a half-ton woman.”

“Well, I…”

Penny shuffles up to Candice. The top of Penny’s shoes, dull with grease and dust, have just about separated themselves from those soles. Candice smiles, takes the coins, and turns to stash it all in the register.  Candice turns to Penny as the window slides shut. Penny’s dark hair, all matted down under hairnet, looks like a wad of steel wool. Beads of sweat have left trails along her neck and face like tiny snails were taking residence in that mess up top. Her work-issued pants encase her hips that hover above her legs that struggle to move all her weight. She leaves the fries in the bag and waddles out of sight. She looks like someone who needs a son who can tell her that carrots aren’t just for cakes, but what kind of son would say that to a mother?

That smile of Candice, it’s a smile to slow the heart, but a smile that can quicken it to a flutter, too. A smile of instant indecision. It’s a smile that has slowly expanded with every night at the drive-thru, expanded with the trial and error of memorizing her schedule, expanded with letting Mama only win the great dinner debate on the nights when Candice would be there, expanded with every order of a Number 4 with a Coca-Cola Classic.

But, these are the only words that can come out no matter how many cars rumble in hungry idle, no matter how many calming, focused breaths pass over the ridges of my throat, no matter how many times regret aim my eyes toward anything but the old, familiar Number 4—the Double Texas Chili-Bacon Burger meal that comes with a double order of fries.

These words are almost as empty as the words she’s trained to say. These words order what should be something else, but loyalty is at the root of my obedience, which soaks my muscles with the memory of driving here again and again—so many times I could do it blind.

Candice returns to the window, slides it open, and says, “Hun, we’re just waiting on those patties real quick. It won’t be just another moment.” Her quick smile lingers like headlights in a rearview mirror.

She turns and starts talking into her headset as the so-familiar phrase, Welcome to Burger-if-ic, sends a quiet rev purring through the hybrid engine. There’s no punch up there. Just calm acceleration.

Tonight’s the night the course changes. The window slides open. “So sorry about that wait, hun.”

Tonight’s the night the body no longer leads blindly. She reaches out with the burger and chili and bacon and fries in the bag so carefully folded at the top with those perfectly squared corners.

Tonight’s the night the script changes. The seatbelt holds down a flutter.

Tonight’s the night the voice lets loose what it has only imagined night after night. Night after night, I’ve waited for rumbling car after car to squeal away with neatly folded brown bags. Night after night, I’ve wanted to touch the milky-white hand attached to the woman who has somehow performed the miracle of dodging the strain and grease of Burger-if-ic. Tonight has to be the night because she’s off tomorrow and it’s Mama’s Frito Pie night.

We reach out for the handoff of burger and chili and bacon and fries. Our hands meet half way, and her skin is as soft as I imagined. The weight of the bag feels heavier than ever before.

“Y’all have a Burger-if…”

I look up at her. “Candice, if you’re not working tomorrow night, I’d love to take you out to dinner.”

The bag slips from our fingers. The sound of burger and chili and bacon thudding on the pavement echoes. There’s not a single car idling at the traffic light on the main street just beyond the exit.

Her hand retreats, and she says, “Oh, I owe you a Coca-Cola Classic.”

The window slides shut with a whoosh of air and a quiet thud.

Sweat beads along the long slope of my forehead. The light turns with a splash of green across the windshields of the cars waiting at the division light: stretches of corn behind them and a handful of churches and bars ahead.

The window slides open, and our hands meet again in the middle of this canyon between the burger joint and the car. The phone on the passenger seat vibrates. Candice darts her eyes toward the phone and has to notice Mama’s impatience lighting up the screen.

“Oh, well, ain’t you just so sweet, but…”

The cup of Coca-Cola Classic beads with sweat and starts to slide from our hands.

“Gosh, I just…”

The splash of Coca-Cola Classic finishes with a hiss.

“Well, I have a,” she starts to say and retreats back inside. She leans on her elbows. “My boyfriend…”

“Sorry, sorry. I shouldn’t have said…asked…”

The phone vibrates again from Mama. I sink the gas pedal into the sponge of a floor.

***

Red light streaks across the windshield. “Yes, Mama, I got your dinner….”

Green light streaks across the windshield. “Yes, Mama, I got you the Number 4 like always.”

A car’s horn sounds off behind me. “Yes, I’m on my way back. Now, we talked about this. I can’t give you a bath tonight; I’ve got those papers to grade.”

The headlights disappear from the rearview mirror as the car rumbles past. “I’ll be home in no more than a moment.” The phone darkens with a click.

I set the phone on the passenger seat and expect the smell of burger and chili and fries to seep into the empty seat where mama used to sit (when she used to fit), and I expect to see condensation bead up and drip from the Styrofoam cup. But that cup of Coca-Cola Classic is soaking into the pavement by the drive-through window behind me.

And the car feels like mama’s there with me, putting too much weight, too much pressure on those fragile joints. The wheels nearly miss a sewer drain as I jerk it back on course toward home, and I know Mama just might have to eat a salad for dinner tonight.


Kent Lenz resides in the humid southeast where he teaches First Year Composition at Georgia Southern University. During his brief moments away from teaching, he enjoys playing softball, gathering cat hair off the keyboard of his laptop, and watching baseball.