It’s a parking lot and there’s a food truck. It’s cherry red with racing stripes and has the number twenty-three on its side within the boundaries of a white roundel. A young man walks by the lot at ten A.M. He does it every day except weekends. His attention is diverted from his mundane thinking path to that eye-catching truck. He stops, he turns, gets blinded by the morning sun, and then he moves to the truck.
“Wow,” he steps under the awning and now he finally sees the vendor – a girl of his age, maybe a little bit younger, about twenty. “Slick truck you have here!”
“Thanks,” she acknowledges the slickness of her truck with a slight movement of her head.
“So, can I have…” the young man looks at the chalked menu: there’s not that much of a menu but he’s already confused, “what’s a ‘Burst Tire Between The Buns’ hot dog?”
“It’s a greasy pork sausage that bursts while I’m cooking it ‘cause that girl just can’t handle the heat. The juice flows out and oils the grilled wheat bun a little. I usually add some pickles on top of that and some bac-bits or fried onions. Best topped with ketchup. But I don’t recommend too much sauce – it tries too hard to overpower the meat.”
“Okay, what’s a ‘Motorhead Sandwich’? ”
“Two grilled buns with a rectangular beef patty between them, a touch of white cheese and three spoons of chilling sauce. It’s pretty damn hot, so when your face turns red you need to chill a little,” she shows him a motion that signifies a need for the world around her to chill, and that movement suits her vibe really well.
“Road Rash Hour?”
“Bacon, turkey, white sauce, grated cuke. All in a pita.”
“Oil Spill By The Grill Potatoes?”
“It’s just French fries with the topping of your choice.”
“Veg Grill In Your Grill?”
“Apple Cream Pie?”
“It’s an apple cream pie, man.”
“Right, right,” the man feels awkward and, to some degree, stupid – of course it’s just a pie. He decides to skip the rest of the pun-filled menu, “I’ll take the ‘Burst Tire’, then.”
“Between the buns?” this was inquired, rather, by the spatula in her hand than by the girl herself.
“Sure. Do it the way you do it.”
It turns out that it takes about ten minutes for a ‘tire’ to burst and find its place between the buns. Add a couple more minutes for it to get ready to go.
“Your order,” the meal appears, the money disappears.
“Thanks! I haven’t seen you before.”
“Man, it’s normal. There are a lot of people in the world, you know,” the girl wipes her forehead and adjusts the red baseball cap with the number twenty-three on it.
“Nah, nah, nah, I mean your truck.”
“You’re my first customer.”
“Ha, can I have a life-time discount then?” the man smiles.
“Why?” the girl doesn’t.
“Sorry, it was a joke. See you tomorrow… if that thing is,” he points at the packed hot dog, “good.”
“Good?” the second joke she doesn’t get either. “It’s great, not good.”
“Sure, I’ll check later, at the office. Bye.”
“See ya,” the spatula waves goodbye.
It’s ten A.M. again. The parking lot, the cherry truck, the rising sun – all there. ‘That thing’ was eaten yesterday before lunch, and it was great indeed.
“Looks like I’m your first customer again!”
“I opened, like, five minutes ago,” the girl spoke to her first customer disappearing behind the counter from time to time, going through the unmarked boxes.
“That hot dog was amazing!”
“Told ya,” her voice was barely heard from the mysterious depths of the truck.
“Can I have a ‘Motorhead Sandwich’? To go.“
“If you pay for it, sure, why not?”
The patty dripped over the hot coals, spreading the aroma all over the truck and far beyond. The girl flipped it a couple of times and returned to the counter – her very first client still was the only one present in front of her cherry red enterprise.
“What’s your name?”
“It’s Jessica…” she looked somewhere beyond the tree line on the other side of the parking lot, “it’s Jessica Imola Fuelspill,” now she stared at her customer.
“No way someone would name their daughter ‘Fuelspill’. “
“I came up with it myself.”
“With ‘Imola’ too?”
“No, that’s my middle name and the one I prefer.”
“You’re an easy find on social networks, I guess,” the man reached for his mobile phone.
“I don’t do that stuff.”
“Come on, really? You should have some presence to promote your business,” the phone found its way back to the pocket.
“I don’t want to.”
“Fair enough, Jessica Fuelspill.”
Jessica Fuelspill walked towards her cooking station to turn the patty; she checked the air temperature with her hand, checked the meat temperature with the cooking thermometer, and put two pieces of bread on the grill.
“I’ve never heard the name ‘Imola’ before,” the voice from the street tried to reach the cook while she sauced the sandwich.
“It’s a racing track in Italy,” the cook’s voice wasn’t trying but was heard.
“Is it a famous place? Sorry, I don’t know much about racing.”
“Ayrton Senna died there in nineteen ninety-four.”
“Crashed straight into the concrete barrier at two hundred miles, died instantly. Got hit by his own tire in the head. And by the suspension arm too.”
“Jesus Christ, what a gruesome death!”
“It’s racing, man. And this,” she came back, “is a ‘Motorhead Sandwich’. ”
The male hands grabbed the paper bag, “Thanks. Isn’t that, kind of, eerie to be named after a place where people died?”
“What’s your name?”
“Juan Octavio Padilla.”
Jessica Imola Fuelspill stopped moving, “Man, that’s something,” but she quickly regained her ability to perform physical actions. “And why are you named like that?”
“Padilla is just my dad’s last name. And Juan Octavio… my mom saw it on a book spine–“
“See? Would you rather be named after some... fucking… book spine or after a sacred place where Titans clashed, the best raced, where lives were lost, and helmets cracked under pressure?”
“When you put it that way…”
“You know what my father said when he chose that name for me?” the owner of the cherry red truck leaned over the counter – now Juan was able to see her dark eyes and freckles up close. “She’ll crash the cars and claim the best.”
Juan had no idea what to do with his face: the girl’s stare was too intense for him to handle, “Um… okay… wanna go on a date?”
“No,” the girl pushed herself away from the counter. “Need something to drink?”
“I’m good, thank you. Bye.”
The next day Juan wasn’t the first to the truck twenty-three. The next week he was third in line. The next month he was tenth. The menu stayed the same, the cooking too. Jessica, or Imola (let’s respect her preference) wasn’t changing that much either – the same red cap over dark, ponytailed hair, the same nonchalant exterior.
The word of mouth made the place quite popular by local standards of street food consumption. The parked truck saw most of its customers three times a day, before it would disappear in an unknown direction.
A short long-haired man with a narrow body and giant hands approached the counter from the other side, jumping the queue. He gestured with smile to the people waiting for the grill to become free from the burden of food; his raised hand meant, “I’ll be really fast, I’m not ordering anything,” but people don’t usually read body language that well.
“Sorry, Jessica, right?” judging by the way he pronounced the ‘j’ sound, he was from Sweden.
“Kind of,” the girl looked at the queue, then at the grill, computing her next movements.
“I own a restaurant. It has two Michelin stars.”
“I own Michelin tires, is it the same thing?”
“No, but it’s related. I know that I sound like a douche, but what I mean, is that it’s a pretty fancy place. It’s called…” the man said the name. It probably meant something but not to the girl. “My employee gave me this sandwich of yours,” he showed her a half-eaten ‘Motorhead’.
“Oh, man,” Jessica exhaled, “I usually only do doubles, it can’t get smaller than this... I can cut it in quarters if you want me to, but it’ll loose the juice,” she turned to the cooking station, looking for the knife.
“That’s not what I’m talking about.”
“I can decorate it with something inedible. I have… straws and napkins,” she showed him straws and napkins.
“What? No. I want you to work for me. Usually people come to my restaurant asking for work, but I made an exception this time.”
“Yeah? I don’t know. What’s the schedule?” the girl went to the grill.
The man stood on his tiptoes, “Wednesday to Sunday. Start at two P.M., work until the last client leaves. Fridays and holidays are the busiest. But I, personally, start at noon.”
“Ten hours a day?”
“More or less. On average”
“So, it’s like an office job but without breaks and solitaire.”
“I wouldn’t call it an office job.”
“How much do you pay?”
The man tapped on the side of the truck, “Well, you’ll start as my line cook, and if you’re good, I’ll put you on the grill–”
“Money. I’m talking about money.”
The queue was the first to react to the hourly payment of a fancy restaurant’s cook… with loud laughter and even louder swearing.
“I’ll pass,” Imola returned with a spatula in her hand, “are you going to order something?”
“Can I have,” the two-star Michelin chef glanced at the menu, “a cup of ‘Coolant Pop’? ”
“Sure. The line starts there,” the spatula pointed at the end of the queue.
Juan Octavio Padilla was freed from his work on Christmas Eve (bless his boss). He stayed in bed for two or three hours longer than usual, unwilling to leave its warmth and face the winter chill. After spending half of the day at his tiny, lonely apartment, he decided to get out, because he had some kind of plan.
“Man, I’m already closed, you’re late,” Imola was folding the awning, while the wind tried to blew her own ponytail into her face, slapping the girl on her cheek.
“Hi, I’m surprised that you’re working today,” Juan was over-the-head happy to find the girl here at this time, though he tried to look cool and chill, but not because of weather. The plan, somehow, worked. A flying paper cup from a garbage can hit him in the nose.
“I’m closing a little earlier today. Holidays are on the final approach. It’s time to relax for me and this girl,” Imola patted her truck.
“Any plans for the evening?”
“I don’t know, nothing special. Christmas dinner, gifts, me, mom, dad, grandma, grandpa, aunt Denise, our two dogs, aunt Claire, aunt Michelle, aunt Alex, uncle Alex – not related – my four cousins, probably some other relatives that I see once or twice a year,” the girl cranked the awning handle. “You?”
“I usually wander around the city until midnight… then go to sleep,” Juan shrugged as if it was the only proper way to celebrate Christmas.
“Sounds like a good holiday to me,” the girl rubbed her fingers and tried to warm them with her breath. “Well, I’m freezing. Gotta go.”
“Wait,” Juan took one step in her direction. “Let’s grab some food… somewhere… maybe?” his insecurity smiled at her.
“Ma-a-an. Are you asking me on a date again?” she slapped herself on the forehead.
“No-no. Let’s just hangout… and eat something non-car-related. And then you’ll spend your time with your family and I–”
“Alright. Deal. Hop in,” Imola opened the door of her truck.
Food. It smelled of food. Even that the cab was separated from the rest of the truck it still smelled like lots and lots of grilled meals that were cooked here for the last four months. The owner of the truck also smelled like food, probably. That was the first thing that Juan thought about after Imola jumped on her seat and closed the door. He spotted a huge, heavy duty leather jacket hanging on the backrest. The girl inserted the key, pressed the clutch, and put her truck in neutral. Now, that the apron was gone, Juan was able to see what she was wearing – a white longsleeve, cheap sneakers, and a pair of ripped jeans – nothing fancy.
“Where to?” she turned the key.
“I don’t know, I need to think–“
“I know!!!” she stepped on the gas a couple of times. “Oh, man, I know just the place!!!” The girl scowled in a very frightening smile and started laughing, “Hold on!”
Imola was an impressive driver: she impressed Juan so much that he felt that in his stomach. When his skin changed its color from the usual one to some shade of blue the girl decided to slow down a little and add a touch of smoothness to her steering input.
“My dad says, ‘Mollie, a great driver is the one who makes his passengers feel comfortable, not sick.’ And I say, ‘Not my motto, dad!’ Almost there, by the way,” she punched her only passenger in the shoulder.
The truck stopped. Juan opened his window to catch a gust of fresh, livening, chilly, and cold, very cold, good Lord, it’s so cold outside, wind. He closed the window and turned his head to the left when the girl said, “That’s the place,” she pointed at the other side of the street.
“What the hell?! It’s a Michelin-star restaurant!”
“Oh, you know about it too? Great.”
“Yes, there are just, like, three or four in the whole damn city! Look at the line!” he pointed at the group of people on the other side of the street. All of them were dressed if not to kill, then definitely to impress. “There’s zero chance that we can get inside today… or on any holiday… as a matter of fact, I would say that on any other day too. And I’m pretty sure their prices are ridiculous.”
“Man, behave, damn it,” another shoulder punch, “I’ll handle the situation.”
She signaled him to ‘shoosh’, then reached for her cracked and beaten up phone. She pressed the green button with a handset on it and dialed one of the first numbers on the list.
“Hi, dad! … No. I’m good … No, everything’s fine, no accidents, don’t worry. Dad, can you help me with something? … No, the truck is fine too … Remember that restaurant I told you about last month? … Yeah, that one, with Swedish chef … Yeah, bork, bork, bork. Dad, can you get me a table there? … No, I’m with a friend … A boy … No … No, dad, no! … His name’s Juan … Of course I’ll come back before nine! … Hello, aunt Denise, I’ve missed you too! … No … I’m not trying to impress him … It has nothing to do with that … Yes … I think it’s a hilarious thing to do, dad … Yeah … No-o-ow you get it! …” she glanced at the referred Juan, “Juan Octavio Padilla … I agree, dad, I agree … And a parking place too … What do you mean ‘the license plate’? It’s your truck, dad, don’t you remember the plate number? … Of course I’ll pay for myself! … Okay, I’ll wait for your text … Love you, bye!”
“Wow,” Juan’s eyes were quite round, “that was really impressive… on your dad’s part.”
“He. Is. The best,” the girl livened up to an unusual extent.
“He must be a really great cook–“
“My dad? He can’t cook himself a bowl of instant noodles.”
“Really. It’s beyond me: there’s literally nothing to cook, and he still struggles. But there are other reasons to love one’s dad. Shit!” she finally saw the attire of freezing people in the restaurant’s queue, “we don’t fit in, man, we just don’t fit. Look at me! There must be a ketch stain somewhere,” Imola tried to locate the aforementioned stain, but it seemed that the t-shirt was clean. “Maybe I have a spare skirt in my bag.”
“You wear skirts?”
“What? How dare you,” the girl shook her head without any seriousness to her gesture. She took the cap off, freed her hair from a scrunchie, and made it look tousled. “How about now? Do I look like I wear skirts?” To Juan’s surprise, Imola had impressively thick hair that covered most of her face in its uncombed, undone state. “Christ, they smell like food,” she blew it off her eyes.
“You look… gorgeous.”
She really did.
“Aw, thanks, man!” she smiled, punched him in a shoulder again, and dove into her colorful bag. “There it is!” she got out a beige plaid skirt. “Let’s hope I won’t freeze my privates! If I catch a single glance while I’m changing, I’ll poke your eyes out. Capeesh?”
Leather jacket sleeve wrapped itself around Juan’s arm. The material was so thick that he barely felt the presence of Imola’s arm inside. He also felt numerous racing patches touching his body through his windbreaker. They walked down the street and finally saw the restaurant and the ever-present queue.
“Should we speak French with them?” Imola whispered.
“Why? You speak French?”
“Of course not! But Michelin is a French company–“
“Wait, you don’t know what Michelin stars mean?”
“No fucking idea,” she yawned.
“It’s a rating system–“
“Shh, man. Target in sight…”
They walked past the line of people. None of them wore short skirts, jeans, or gigantic leather jackets with the names of fuel or welding companies. But all of them looked at the couple with varying degrees of surprise.
“Hi!” Imola greeted the host with the most oversized smile; Juan’s quiet “Good evening,” was barely heard.
“Good evening. You have a reservation?” the man looked undeniably professional.
“Please, check for Imola and señor Juan Octavio Padilla.”
“Oh yes. We got the call. Please, follow me… Sorry for the parking – we can fit another table, but a whole car is a little too much on a day like this.”
The girl winked and showed Juan both thumbs up.
They sat in a pretty packed hall; their table was clearly an addition to the usual plan of the restaurant, but it wasn’t disturbing the other visitors. At least they hoped so. Their look was more of an issue in the eyes of Imola, but no one around them really cared.
“They are so nice to us it’s appalling, have you heard the wardrobe lady? She said ‘cool jacket’! “ the girl lowered her voice a little. “And this place looks, let’s put it this way… not the way I expected it to look,” wooden beams under wooden ceiling, big windows in the brick walls, and lots of light, “it looks, kind of, you know, shmimple.”
“What were you expecting? And, by the way,” Juan leaned forward, closer to Imola, “what the heck are we doing here?”
“I don’t know. Their main dude said that it’s a ‘fancy’ place.”
“You know the main ‘dude’? The chef, you mean?”
“I guess so. Well, he said he was the chef. I don’t know him like I know… you, for example. He came to my truck and said that his employee gave him one of my sandwiches. And that he wanted me to work for him. And I said, ‘I’ll pass.’ ”
“Jessica, for Christ sake, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity!” Juan grabbed himself by the head.
“I don’t give a…” she quickly looked around, “fudge, man. If it was about the last lifeboat on a sinking ship, then I would probably agree with you. But, in the end, death is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity too. Who ca-a-ares,” she blew into her hair, enjoying the view of the swaying strand.
“I was the employee who gave him the sandwich,” Juan made a very serious face.
“What?!” the girl’s eyes said it all. “You’re fucking… oops, I mean, fudging with me!”
The man laughed into his hand, “Yes, I am. I wish I had a mirror to show your face to you!”
“Ma-a-an, you got me good,” she nodded with a big, satisfied smile. “Caught me off guard, Juanito.”
“Good evening, my name is Clovis, and on this magnificent evening I am your personal waiter, or as we call it here, the guide.”
Imola thought that Clovis was a ghost – his appearance was as surprising for her, as it was for Juan. The girl’s body involuntary moved in the opposite from the waiter direction. “Hi! Hello! I mean, good evening!”
“Good evening, Sir,” Juan bowed his head a little – Clovis was at least twenty years older than him.
“Let me present you with our unique experiences: we have a five course, an eight course, and a twelve course menus. It takes from two to three hours to fully dive into the extraordinary creations of our Chef Gustav and his loyal team. Please, have a look, you can ask anything you want about any of our courses or ingredients, and I will surely answer any questions you have. We also have a special eight course vegetarian option. If you wish to order it, you only have to ask and I will surely convey to our Chef that it’s ‘Fuelspill’ in a car number twenty-three. She’s really pushing ‘Chase’ in the back, but I think she’s going to slingshot after the last corner. And yes! YES! She does…”
“Jessica?” Juan waved his hand in front of the girl’s face.
She was looking past him, but acknowledged the human beings around her with a double-blink, “Sorry… I think I’ve overworked.”
“Don’t even worry about it. How about I leave you the menus and our beverage carte and come back a little later with a bottle of our special palate cleanser?”
“Thank you, that would be great,” Juan smiled for two and opened the first menu. Clovis turned around and disappeared, though not as ghostly as he had appeared.
“Are you alright?”
“Not really. The lighting causes my mind to drift. And this whole atmosphere... it puts pressure on me.” She picked one of the pristine white cards, “but let’s see what my enemy has prepared.”
“Yeah. I’ve sent him to the end of the line, he must’ve been pissed.”
“Did he buy something in the end?”
“A cup of ‘Coolant Pop’. “
“I guess there’s nothing hostile about him, then. The ‘dude’ just wanted to hire you. He approached you on his own: it’s an extremely rare thing, to my knowledge. And a recognition of your skill. You said ‘no’, and he, probably, forgot about your existence,” Juan tried to study the courses while talking.
“It’s not like he’s my personal enemy, man. Look, look at the price!” she showed her menu to Juan, though he had the same exact piece of paper in his hands. “We present different ideologies. It’s like I’m a socialist… operating in a capitalist system… and he’s… who the fuck knows who he is.”
Her hand dropped on the table, brushing off any attempts to express the disappointment in this whole world.
“But he’s not hurting anyone. I think your… systems can co-exist, don’t you think? It’s just food, anyway. Yours is straight and to the point, and his is more of a… I wanted to say ‘a theme park-ride’, but I’m not sure if there is such a thing as a high-class theme-ride–“
“It’s not food, Juan. Food is fuel, food is life. You can’t fuel someone with this. This is a theatre of ego!”
“Wasn’t expecting such phrasing from y–“
“This twelve course meal costs the same money I make on my best day! The eight course – on average day. And the five course is what usually left after gas, ingredients, and taxes. Fucking hell, man… all those pretentious European words… mousse, truffles, brioches… just call it a bun!”
Juan felt that Imola was heating up, as her face was becoming red, masquerading the freckles. She picked up the last card, with twelve dishes.
“Two stars my ass… I have cool meal names, at least… look,” the menu was in Juan’s face again, “look! Beef with marmite! Who eats marmite outside of Britain? Is he a Brit? No, he’s a Swedish dude… probably… did he study in Britain? I don’t know… what’s there to study? There’s no food in Britain, only fish and chips and black, motherfucking, pudding! Have you ever tasted that atrocity?”
“Jess,” the hand reached out for her palm, “please, don’t. You’re so chill–”
“The guide, the palate cleanser…” she held on to his hand, but then let it go, “I wanna leave. I wanna go home, man.”
“Yes. Please,” Imola’s fingertips touched her eyes and became wet.
The girl tried to hide her shame and herself behind her thick hair, downcast gaze, and folded arms, while Juan got their jackets from the wardrobe lady.
“Are you alright… is she alright?” the concerned woman decided to readdress her question.
“More or less. She’ll be fine,” Juan received the heaviest jacket he ever held in his hands and his barely insulated windbreaker. “Thank you.”
“We hope to see you back… Merry Christmas.”
Imola extended her arm and took the jacket without looking, “Thanks.” She hung it on her shoulders and rushed past the host, unable to say anything.
“Something happened?” the host still looked as professional as before, but now he was also professionally worried.
“Family matters,” Juan used the most usual excuse available to anybody but an orphan.
“Sorry to hear that.”
They were sitting in a cold, dark truck. The only light source was a blue street light outside. The cab kept traces of warmth for some time, but now it was almost gone as December silently creeped in through the gaps and vents.
“Now they would think that I’m a spoiled piece of shit,” Imola was hugging herself, leaving the clouds of cold breath in the air.
“I wouldn’t care about that if I was you,” Juan was feeling alright, despite the chill, but his fingers were not.
“Seriously?” a pair of black eyes glanced at him from the sanctuary of hair and leather.
“I thought you’re the one who doesn’t give a damn about a thing.”
“I don’t like treating people like that. I wasn’t trying to disrespect their craft, it’s just–”
“Would you, please, start the car, I can’t feel my fingers.”
“Oh, sorry, man,” the truck twenty-three came to life.
“You’re welcome… Padilla.”
Something about these words made Juan laugh, as if it was the funniest thing he ever heard.
“What’s so funny?” The girl was about to laugh too, but she wanted to know the reason to do so first, “Hey, Padilla,” so she punched Juan in a shoulder for the third time, “what’s so funny, man?”
“You sound like my boss when you call me ‘Padilla’, “ he covered his shoulder from her small fist.
“Is he just as cool as me?” she was still trying to find the target on his body.
“She’s a lady. And no, she’s not cool at all,” the laughter stopped and gave way to a smile.
“What do you do for the living?”
“I sit in front of a computer and go through different documents. Eight hours a day.”
“Oh, boy. My condolences.”
They both thought about something for a minute to the music of the idling engine that protected them from the outer world.
“You still wanna grab some food?” Imola closed her eyes, enjoying an unknown picture inside her mind.
“I only had a light breakfast today.”
“Good. Let’s a have a real experience.”
As the last traces of the sun disappeared from the horizon, there was no way to guess the time of the day in the part of the city they were in. The girl parked her truck under the elevated railway and led her companion to the double doors on the street corner.
They occupied two cherry red booth seats on both sides of the dark wood table, bordering a huge window, looking out at one of so many parallel streets of the city grid. Their eyes tuned to a cozy, mellow light, their ears – to a barely recognizable song: something from the eighties, a little bit cheesy, but very comforting at the same time.
“You know nothing about this place, don’t ya?” Imola patted the old table, as if it was her pet.
“I don’t know a single thing about this neighborhood, let’s start from here.”
“Ooh, Juanito is so gwumpy-wumpy today!” the girl’s fingers were spinning the menu on the table.
“Then choose your food. There are no… ‘guides’ here, “ she pushed him a red piece of laminated paper. Its design was old; its appearance was weary… to say the least. “Don’t forget to wash your hands after you’re done with the menu!”
Juan immediately put the card on the table.
“I’m kidding, man. They wipe it when they clean the table. That’s why they wear out faster than they should. It’s a tradition.”
“How do you know?”
“My mom was a waitress here. Dad saw her in a window and, as he said, ‘Mollie, I’ve never made a quicker decision in my life,’ the rest is… family history. Turned out the food was great too.”
“He proposed then and there?”
“It took him some time to get her out on a date… six months, maybe? But they married a little later… when I was, like… five years old?”
“So, it’s a family tradition?” Juan’s tilted his head and smiled with his eyebrows raised.
“You look like a cute little puppy right now,” the girl placed her head on one hand. “What tradition?”
“I mean… six months before the first date,” the puppy level increased.
“Man, you’re one stubborn Padilla. I’m not my mom. She’s just proper, cool, and old school,” Imola leaned back and looked at the ceiling. “I hate dating, man. I hate being in a relationship.”
And now the puppy ended, “But… why?”
“I hate responsibilities.”
She heard nothing but saw an active hand movement that demanded some further explanation.
“What? Being with someone is a responsibility and I don’t want any of it. I only wanna be responsible for one thing,” her thumb poked herself on the chest twice, “talking about the number twenty-three.”
“So… you, basically… only hook up?”
“What? Like… fuck you, man. It’s even worse than being in a relationship.”
“Alright, sorry… But don’t you feel lonely?”
“Of course I do. Everybody does, from time to time. It’s a normal feeling, man. Sadness, loneliness, it’s all normal. You can’t be on a constant joyride in this life… that’s what my grandma says. She’s cool as hell too, by the way.”
“Hi. Ready to order?” the waitress was as young as both visitors were, though her ghost appearing skills already matched those of Clovis.
“Five minutes,” Imola showed her all the fingers on one hand. “Choose your food, man.”
“I just wanted to say–“
“That you talk too much for a hungry person.”
He became silent and dove into the reasonably priced food choices. The last song ended and the new started.
“Time, time, time, see what’s become of me… while I looked around for my possibilities… I was so hard to please…” the girl caught on with the music: her head slightly moved to the fast drum beat. She added a quiet fifth voice to the female quartet.
“I’m ready,” the choice was made when the song ended. “Should I signal to the waitress?”
“She’ll be back in a minute.”
“They just take your order, bring you food, take your money, clean your table. No bothering. I love it.”
“You need a menu?”
“I know it from start to finish.”
“Can you tell them, ‘The usual,’ like in the movies?”
“Well, probably… but I’m not even sure if I ever saw the same waitress here twice. My mom said that their cooks also rotate… like rotisserie chickens. But their food stays the same.”
“You mean, tastes the same, or, like, the same menu?”
“Tastes the same, every time.”
“How is it possible?”
“Ready to order?” the supernatural waitress was back.
“Yes,” Juan was ready, but, at the same time, hesitant – he looked at the menu once again, “can I have a beef burger, some hushpuppies and a glass of iced tea?”
“Miss?” Juan was sure that the waitress didn’t turn, but teleported to another position to face the girl.
“Fries, mushroom sauce, cheeseburger, home lemonade – one glass,” she showed her index finger.
“Okay,” the waitress was not present in their universe anymore.
“See?” the girl looked happier than ever. “And what I like the most,” she lifted herself from the seat and turned her head around, “this place is never packed, no matter when you come here. Perfection.”
“The music is alright too.” Juan also looked around, studying the interior, “This place has this ‘frozen in time’ vibe.”
The girl’s head was tilted back again, only now she had her eyes closed, “It’s not frozen… it’s out of time,” she put her palms on the table and rested her head on her hands, “you know, it originated at some point in time, never reflecting its own era, “she looked at the old, glowing jukebox which served merely as an interior decoration, “the booths are from some diner, the tables, probably, made by a local woodworker who needed to get rid of the leftovers, the jukebox is from a thrift shop… and the music is all over the place… there’s no time inside these walls,“ she closed her eyes and moved her head into a comfortable for a nap position. Her voice now was barely audible, “no need to worry, no need to rush…”
Too glasses quietly landed on the table. Imola grabbed one without opening her eyes, “Thanks,” she smiled, as if she was already dreaming about something warm, good, and simple, “they even put it at this same spot all the time.”
“How can you cook something so it would taste the same all the time?” Juan spoke in a lower voice, too afraid to disturb her non-happening dream.
The index finger appeared in front of his eyes, “Food scale,” the middle finger came into the view, “timer,” the ring finger was next, “thermometer.” Imola put the hand back under her head, “Look at the recipe, use the same ingredients, and have a pair of hands growing out of your shoulders. Not your assage! A head with a brain is also useful but not required. That’s it. You’re all set.”
“You make it sound too easy.”
“Cooking is easy. How can you even survive if you can’t cook? I need to ask my dad about that, I guess… But. Not only it’s easy, it’s a necessity. You don’t even need to kill your food anymore or grow your crops. Just go buy something and cook it. Or slave to the microwave, if you’re that low on life,” she tossed her hand.
“I mean, cooking good is not that easy.”
The girl opened her eyes and started tapping on the table, “It’s the same thing. Find the recipe that works, do it by the book, and, voila, you cooked something good and tasty.” The girl ‘woke up’ and took a sip of the home lemonade, “Seriously, how many times can you burn a pancake? For people who never measure and go ‘by ear’ it can be hit and miss. But if you use three cheap devices that I’ve mentioned,” she showed him the three fingers again, “and buy good stuff to cook with, man, and have your stove top setup correctly, and know when the coals are hot enough… okay, don’t bother. It’s a ‘piece of cake’. ”
“What about love… and soul?”
“Isn’t it the same as with every other thing you do? If you love the thing you do, you do it with care. Cooking is great, man, but it’s not an art. Racing, now that’s an art,” Imola finished her speech.
“Alright, there’s no recipe for racing, I can agree with that,” Juan surrendered and showed his empty palms.
“That’s what my dad says,” she winked and clicked with her tongue in approval.
“Is he a race car driver?” Juan was turning into a puppy again. Since he was not as excited as before, but rather intrigued, he resembled an adult dog.
“One of the best. Well, he used to be. He’s retired now.”
“Wow,” that was a surprise, “that explains how we got into that restaurant.”
“Yup. It is exactly how we got there,” the girl was quite pleased with that fact.
“I don’t get one thing–”
Two giant plates descended from heaven to their tables, carrying the smell of the promised food paradise for a couple of hungry people. The beef burger looked at Juan with pride – with its own and with that of the unknown being who cooked it. Eight hushpuppies accompanied the burger on their way to the sacrifice in the name of the simplest human joy.
“Yes!” Imola’s fist pumped the air – she achieved, she deserved every single thing she saw on her plate – the fries, the cheeseburger, the mushroom sauce. “It’s so… it’s…” she held it in her hand: perfect in its roundness, in the crispiness of its crust, full of moisture and flavor, her personal cheeseburger, cooked just for her, the one that absorbed the spirit of the burning coals while its juice flowed over them, creating the mesmerizing smell that attracted her ancestors to the fire for thousands of years. The smell that made every man stop, think, and turn around, the one that was present through the whole history of the human civilization no matter the place – on the plains and steppes, in the forests and savannahs – anywhere where a man may roam.
“I…” Juan opened his mouth to say something.
Imola’s raised her hand – she wasn’t here anymore, “Please, don’t…”
The Earth rotated for fifteen minutes.
Juan and Imola shook their heads, each in their own fashion, reflecting their different ways of reacting to the world. But now, when they looked at the empty plates in front of them, their thoughts and feelings were synchronized.
“That was… an experience,” Juan rubbed his belly.
“Told ya. And you know what?”
“I bet this Chef Gustav comes to a place like this from time to time. Just to grab a greasy old burger. He sits on the seat alone and stares deep into the darkness… of his dead soul.”
Juan wasn’t sure if he really heard that or if it was his own imagination.
“Uhm… Are we done?” he looked outside, at the grey winter street.
“We can sit here all day, until they kick us out…” The girl looked at her phone, “But in our case ‘all day’ is about five minutes, because I told my dad that I’ll be back home before nine.”
“Are you under curfew?”
“No, man,” she shook the phone screen with two collie snouts in front of his face, “it’s Christmas Eve!”
“Honestly, I forgot about that.”
“Well, now you’ll remember. Look,” she pointed outside: the white flakes were dropping down slowly, to the sound of another old song – it wasn’t a Christmas song, but now, after a long day and a hearty meal, it sounded like one. “I’ll give you a ride.”
Juan stared at the lights in front of them, far away, at the next intersection – they moved through the snow, got brighter or dimmer, changed its colors.
“Thanks, man, that was somewhat of an adventure,” Imola’s eyes shined in the darkness.
“Before I go, I wanted to ask something.”
“Please, no more dates, man,” her hands prayed as her eyes turned to the winter sky.
“Go on, then.”
“If your dad is a famous driver… why the heck are you running a food truck?”
“Hah! Good question, man!” Juan’s shoulder was punched for the last time this year, “I crashed my racer for the third time, and my dad said that he’s tired of paying the bill. So he gave me his old truck. I wrapped it in vinyl and put my number on it. He bought me HVAC, cooking station and said, ‘There goes your college fund, Mollie.’ As soon as I get my girl running – I’m out of the food business, man.”
“And… when will you get it running?”
“In a few days, I think. The mechs said that they’ll finish before the New Year.”
Juan understood what that meant, but he tried to push the growing feeling of blue down, “So, it means we’ll never see each other again?”
The girl unlocked the doors, “Don’t worry, Juanito. I crash a lot.”
“You know what? I’m glad to hear that,” he stepped out of the cab. “Merry Christmas, Jessica Imola Fuelspill.”
“Same, Padilla,” she warmed his heart with her carefree smile, “See ya.”