All You Can Eat

by Doug Lane

        I’d have pointed the light tighter into his eyes if I could have. As it was, we were probably in Geneva Convention territory. Smitty asked again, as if anything in the preceding four hours was going to change. The guy was consistent. Nuts, but consistent.

        “You understand we’ve got you on arson, right?”

        The guy nodded, smiled. Bliss, that smile. “Yes. But it'll be okay. I'm free now.”

        “What was it, an insurance gig? We’ve done some checking. The owner was way behind on his second mortgage. He pay you to do it?”

        “He should have just closed the place instead of... persisting. I think that’s the best word for it. Less of an existence. More a persistence. Like when you get ants. They keep finding ways in, even after you think you’ve gotten them all.”

        “So you admit you burned the place down instead of him losing it to the bank.”

        He looked at Smitty like Smitty was growing a second, more interesting head. “I’m not saying that at all.”

        “But you know the guy who owns it.”

        “Only as a customer, really. We don’t exchange recipes or anything.”

        “So you were a regular?”

        “More of a ritualer. Is that a word? It should be a word. Rit-u-a-ler.” Sounding out syllables brought the guy a weird joy. "Not enough tongue roll. Trips a little.

        Smitty was on that like a lamprey on a slow kid in a calm surf. “This was a ritual? You like to burn things, part of some pagan deal?”

        “Oh, no. Going there was a ritual. I’ve been going there for decades.”

        “You like Mexican food?”

        “I adore Mexican food. Would that Miguel’s was such. Alas. Stretching all the way back to college, one day a year, usually in December, I set aside my grievances with the service and the quality and I punish myself with their All You Can Eat lunch. I look at the murals, I sit in a vinyl booth with nothing left of its veneer and duck tape patches on the tears, I try to ignore the smell of over-loved oil from the kitchen, I try not to guess how old the tortillas are, and I belly up.”

        I cocked my head. “If you hate it so much, why not just walk away?”

        There was a sparkle in his eye and for a moment I expected him to say rit-u-a-ler again, but he gave me better than Smitty got. He chose his words as judiciously as I expected he chose his meals when they weren’t at the late Miguel’s. “If I’m being honest, I have no idea why I did it to myself. Nostalgia? Penance? Quantity over quality to remind me how much I enjoy actual food? A reminder of leaner days? I never really thought about it. I just kept doing it, even though it was awful. Truly awful.”

        “You appear to have thought enough about it to burn the place down!” Smitty pointed for emphasis. I don’t think the guy cared.

        “I guess I had an idea of tradition in going there. And sometimes, you need a hard break with tradition.” He grinned, bliss becoming an unbalanced thing. “Other times, you realize one day you couldn’t possibly eat another bite. But most of all, when I got there today, I had a need that got inside my head, like an earworm--“

        “A what?”

        I was surprised Smitty didn’t know the term. I was going to explain it when the suspect did. “A song that gets caught in your head when you hear it. “The Girl From Impanema” or “Volaré” or “Sweet Caroline.” You know. Except this was a sudden desire to know if the place would smell any better if it was cooked. You might even say it was a burning desire.” He tipped back his head and laughed, the sound of his cheese sliding off his cracker, almost an earworm itself.

        We turned him over to the wrap-around coat squad and went about the rest of the shift, but I couldn’t shake that laugh. I tried to leave it at the station when I clocked out, thought that was the end of it. But I could still hear it when I pulled into the drive-through of the burger place down the street from the precinct house. Last outpost of a local chain, going on fifty years old. Known quantity for everyone from the C-line blues grabbing a bite before shift on up to detective inspectors. Convenient, but not much else. Gummy meat. Limp fries. Dry bun. Gut-churn waiting to happen, and we all knew it, but it was late and so was their closing time.

        I ordered like always—all cops have a usual, and I was a double patty, double cheese, fried onion guy since I first walked the beat. I waited in the string of cars for the window, and while I waited the notion struck me: a need to know what a greasy old place like that would smell like if it went up like a runaway barbecue. I considered it the entire time I was parked up the street, eating the spoils of convenience and loathing it and myself in turns, watching the neon sign marking the hideout of arguably the city's worst burger. Most criminal, even.

        Earworms. Jesus. You have to get them out, you know? Not like that guy from the Miguel’s arson. Eyes don't lie. He was crazy. Me setting the Burger Hut to broil? That was more like a clean break with tradition, an opportunity to perform a bad beef exorcism, encourage the other badges to find something better, slap the oily bag out of their hands before they become old, fat, slow cops.

        I was a public servant, doing a public service. I told myself that the entire time I was at the pump up the street at the 7-11, filling the gas cans.

For Jay Francis

The Story Stash is a place where I’ll drop work from time to time - pieces from the trunk,

reprints, even new fiction that hasn’t ever found a home. Stories will be here for

a random time (at least a week, probably longer) before they get replaced

by the next in line. Typically accompanied by some insightful story notes.

(Insightfulness not guaranteed.)