Soup and Burger

She liked how the cold bit at her cheek on nights like this when she could feel its lips. On these nights, the colors contrasted, the yellow of the taxis huddled against the black sky. Everything in lamplight. She wondered if it might snow.

She sucked in as if from a cigarette. “So where to now?” Rachel asked her friends also clad in dark jackets and bright heels.

“Well, do we want to go to another bar, or a club, or– ”

“No,” Nellie said, interrupting Jasmine, who side-eyed to say, “Or weren’t Adam and Elisha having a party?”

“Tomorrow night,” Rachel said.

“Oh yeah, okay,” said Jasmine. “Or we could get food and figure it out?”

Rachel’s mouth tightened. She should have eaten the wings they were offered. But she didn’t like how her fingers still stuck even after wiping them with a napkin, and she didn’t want to deal with waiting in line for the bathroom just to use the sink. At the same time, she was too hungry and it was so early, that she knew she wouldn’t be able to sit down somewhere to eat and not order anything with fries.

“How about Soup ’N Burger?” she offered.

Nellie mmm-ed and Jasmine’s eyes brightened and her hands raised like she had been inflated.

Immediately inside the air warmed like the diner and everyone inside were breathing beneath a heavy blanket. It smelled of noodle soups with celery and coffee, and the lights aged the walls yellow like newspaper.

“I’m definitely getting soup,” said Nellie over the percussion of silverware.

“You have to,” said Jasmine. “It’s in the name.”

“You don’t have to,” said Rachel.

“On your first time, you do,” said Jasmine, in mock offense to Rachel before facing at Nellie.

“Do I have to get a burger too?” said Nellie.

Jasmine gave one of those long, sharp hums like she was deciding. “No,” she said. “The burgers are just okay. They char them too much.”

“Nooo,” Rachel said in gleeful disagreement. “That’s what makes them good.” Turning to Nellie, she said, “it’s like they were cooked in a fireplace. The soup’s really good too. The cheese and broccoli.”

“I might get an omelette,” said Jasmine.

“Oh with the home fries?” said Rachel in approval.

“I’m definitely getting coffee,” said Nellie, her eyes nudging at the wallet-looking flask peeking from her jacket pocket.

They got a booth against the wall. Rachel had always appreciated that the leather seats weren’t vinyl. She also liked the pictures on the wall of people and places she didn’t know.

When her patty melt came, she dug a fry between the cheese and burger and ate it. Nellie noticed and dipped one of her fries into her cheesy soup.

“Oh, I’ve never tried that,” Rachel said, wide-eyed. “Can I have some?”

Swallowing, Nellie nodded and slid her bowl over. Jasmine took one of Rachel’s fries and tried it too.

“We’re gonna need to get more fries,” Jasmine said.

“And soup,” said Rachel over the fries in her mouth.

The soupy fries sharpened the whiskey in their coffees. They had to drink them black because sometimes, if a cup sat too long, the liquor separated from the milk or cream. This being a college part of town, sometimes the servers looked for that, and sometimes they said something.

Their server hadn’t said anything other than “sure” when, while she refilled their coffees, they asked for a basket of fries and another bowl of soup. She wore a bandana over her hair and looked like Frances McDormand. When she leaned down to take Nellie’s empty plate with her free hand, the way she held the coffee pot above and away from the table, with the kitchen and counter behind her, her mouth slightly open and eyes blank with thought — Rachel wanted that picture framed in her future home, to show her kids and their kids where she had lived once, what it was like.

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By Tom Hanks

A made-up story

“I would like to write a book,” Tom Hanks said.

With a casual finality, he flicked an arm, the hand of which made a pleasant splat when it landed atop his crossed knees. He gave a closed-mouth grin and tilted his head. It jittered, like he had once again stumped Meg Ryan and was watching for her to smile sideways then stare at him in admiring bewilderment. He lifted his eyebrows and glanced to the side and then back in response.

“Well, I was thinking short stories…. Of course people read short stories outside of The New Yorker. There is….”

He leaned forward, one hand on his knee, the other in the air as if holding Yorick’s skull. Beholding it, “There is The Kenyon Review,” Tom Hanks said, italicizing the words aloud. “There is The Paris Review. The Susquehanna Review.” Sloping forward in his seat to face full attention, “Have you not reviewed the reviews?”

Pleased, Tom Hanks leaned back, knees again crossed. His socks matched his slacks just so. Still, that grin.

“No no, these would be my stories, but these wouldn’t be my stories,” he said and this time underlined the words, folding his fingers into his chest. “They would be stories I make up. Now they may be, uh, inspired by events in my life. But they may also be pure imagination. I don’t know yet, I haven’t written them.”

He looked down as he smoothed the front of his shirt in preparation. When he looked up, his lips parted into a smile.

“Well, you know, I thought Steve Martin did it,” he said. “And whatever reasons he would have had not to do it, he did it anyway. And whatever reasons people would have had not to read it, they did. So I thought, why can’t I do that too?”

Tom Hanks stilled himself in the mirror.

Almost al dente

The third noodle stuck, high above two lying limp on the tile. She threw a fourth. It also stuck. A fifth fell. The sixth stuck.

So she kept throwing them. Some stuck, some fell. She didn’t yet know what to do with the fallen ones or the ones that stuck. She still had a whole pot to go.

She began to aim, adjusting her throw and her grip. Some she grabbed near the middle and flicked at the wall like she was trying to ring a milk bottle to win an overstuffed penguin. Others she flung for the fuck of it. For some, she wound up, stepping to set her weight to one leg, her arm twisted behind her, and then she whipped forward to frisbee the noodle, which often splatted against the fridge.

She thought about cleaning. Then about cheating. She could move them, she told herself. Who would know? Who would care? Who the hell would she tell? Maybe later, she decided.

But now she struggled. She saw where she wanted the noodles to land. She even had an idea of how. But she lost sight before she let go. They knocked against other noodles and fell, more collecting on the floor.

That became the game. With the few noodles she had left, her last lives. She flung, some fell, some swung into new places and opened new spaces. She finished and took it in. It looked like nothing except spaghetti. She framed it anyhow.

Traffic patterns

A short-ass story

It can’t wait, though. It’s work, she wanted to shout at the billboard. Work doesn’t wait. It doesn’t fucking work like that, she found herself now shouting. Hands choking the steering wheel now, staring at the red light like the asshole that it is, “you smug bastard,” she exhaled.

“You don’t know. Or do you? What do you do when you turn off? And do you know when you’ll turn back on? If you do —“ a second car honks “— I have a follow-up question about sitting alone at red lights, but we can come back to it.”

Rodney: Part 3

“It’s the new slim fit shirts,” the store manager said over the phone to the store manager. “He can’t fold them.”

The regional manager didn’t understand. They were shirts, made out of cotton, with a crew neck and two short sleeves. She asked for Rodney.

“These shirts aren’t made to be folded,” Rodney intoned. “I’m sorry. I’m trying. I’m trying to learn how they want to be folded. But I’m, I’m sorry.”

The regional manager tried to say something but heard the rattle of the landline being passed.

“What about all the returns?” the regional manager asked the store manager.

“Oh that. The customers say that when they return to their homes or hotels, they realize they didn’t like the shirts, or they don’t fit right, or the material is too starchy. Or they’re from here and feel ridiculous walking around in an “I ❤️ NY” shirt. We’ve even had customers from other countries email us, asking if they could return the shirts and saying they’d be willing to pay the shipping. We tell them that’d be almost as much as the shirts.

“They like the slim fits, though,” the store manager continued. “Even the people who shouldn’t be wearing slim-fit anything. But they look awful folded. So we’ve had to hang them.”

Rodney: Part 2

The box on Rodney’s folding station had been opened. Still, it bulged. Rodney pulled it apart. More shirts. But these were different. They had rumpled into piles, whereas the others had slid into each other. They were soft like a memory.

He picked at the shirt where it clung to itself, releasing only to ripple into more magnetic folds. He slid his arms into it and exalted them outward. Then, with a snap, he flapped it against itself, as if to fan the others.

He moved the box and laid the shirt in its place. He smoothed it some more, then grabbed his board. He pinched the right shoulder at the stitch, then the bottom seam with his other hand, and folded. He mirrored his movement on the other side. At the bottom corners of the board, where the other shirts had halted as if called to heel, this shirt had trespassed further before lying down. Rodney nudged it back, and the shirt’s top shrugged at the folding board. He slid shirt and board, bringing the shirt’s bottom onto the table. He tried again. This time the shirt limped into place, and he finished the fold and slid out the folding board.

He peeled the shirt from the tabletop, one hand holding the shirt’s edge while the other’s fingers tunneled under it until the forearm forced a backbone atop which Rodney pressed his other forearm. With this vice grip, he turned the shirt over and laid it down. Also like a memory, it had wrinkled. He tried to smooth it, ironing his fingers along its folds. Back it bulged, in an inhale. He pressed it by hand, with the board. Relentless. He laid the board atop it and left.

In the break room, Sandra and Marty were watching cartoons. The microwave dinged, and Sandra retrieved her Hot Pockets. Rodney took his Gatorade from the fridge and sat down. No one laughed at the cartoon, so no one asked him why he didn’t. He had already seen this episode.

Rodney: Part 1

Rodney didn’t even need a folding board anymore, at least that’s what the others thought. Rodney thought otherwise.

He clutched a clear plastic rectangle around like everyone else. For a time, he decorated his like everyone else too, in his own way. They adorned theirs with stickers and funny sayings and pages ripped from books like Where’s Waldo? or I, Spy. Rodney’s had motivational sayings. Clichés like “A stitch in nine saves time,” “Slow and steady, it’s not a race,” etc. He had come up with a few on his own.

But one day he decided they needed to go. That day Rodney ran his fingers down a slim fit shirt he had folded. The tapered cut could compromise the inside of the fold, bunching it up and bloating the front crease when seen sideways. As he tried to smooth it out, his fingers kept hitting the folding board’s stuck-on sayings, like a speed bump. He stopped. He unfurled the shirt, removed the stickers, went to the break room to wash off the leftover adhesive. Eventually he would ask for an all-new folding board, which the store manager granted him unquestioned.

One day the regional manager had stopped by to inspect the store before it opened. She almost didn’t make it past the first table. The tourist tees were stacked like china. She couldn’t help but to pick one up, to see what a sight its unfurling could be and was, like dye pouring into water. She picked up another, another color, until she had held all the colors. Having undone a half-dozen, she carried them to the store manager to apologize and to ask how the store had achieved such a fold.

The store manager walked the regional manager downstairs to the stock room, past aisles of back-stocked shirts folded identically to those on the front table, and finally to Rodney. Dressed in cargo pants the same sickly tan as his shirt, offsetting his black Reebok classics, Rodney stood in the corner at a folding station that was little more a standing table with hanging rods for sizing stickers. Bent over a folding board, Rodney’s long bangs swayed above a shirt as if to wipe an energy from it.

The store manager introduced Rodney to the regional manager. Then she took a balled-up tee from the regional manager and asked if Rodney would show her how folds it. He did. The regional manager was awed that she didn’t even feel her phone vibrate in her back pocket.

Soon after the store opened, the regional manager stood at the front to greet the customers and see how they received the shirts. A family with young children at first dented the perfection, then a busload of tourists rammed through the rest. The regional manager was horrified and delighted. These were not good shirts. And they were ashamedly overpriced. Yet the people went rabid at them. Many scooped up multiple shirts in varying colors and sizes and proceeded to the cash register, having won. Within seconds of the table’s desertion, an employee rolled up with a cart of replacement shirts and a cart for the remains to take to Rodney.

The regional manager thought back on this moment, this epiphany, months later when looking over the store’s latest numbers. They had fallen precipitously while the number of returns had rocketed. She saw Rodney was still an employee, though his hours had gone down. She called the store manager.