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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Arielle Part 6

Laura got dirt roads. She wished there were more around, that this were one. She’d love to tear down a dirt road: field of shadows to the left, a veil of moonlight. But the best would be that humble crackle when a car slows on loose land. She turned down the music anyway.

“You don’t like that song?” said Delia.

“What? Oh, no. I wasn’t sure if it was too loud.”

Delia smiled and turned it back up. She needed her music loud, especially at night. Even this song. Arielle loves this song, and it’s so dumb. The words aren’t even trying. They probably wrote it in high school. Like, “what kind of movie would have this soundtrack?”

“What?” shouted Arielle.

Laura turned down the music and said, “What movie would have this soundtrack?”

“Ohh,” Arielle hummed. She loved these questions. She taught Delia this game; well, her dad taught them. He would ask them to title different parts of their life. She would have told him twelfth grade was “The Year of Blankets.” Tonight would be “A Very Special Episode.”

“That’s not a movie,” said Laura. “You’re supposed to pick a movie.”

“Shit, you’re right. Delia you go, and I’ll think.”

Arielle Part 5

Delia leaned back to pinch the hem of Arielle’s dress. “Where’d you get this?”

“It’s nice, right?” said Arielle, turning back to Delia and brightening. “My mom got it for me.”

“Raquel picked this out? Damn. Since when can she shop?”

“I know,” beamed Arielle. “She didn’t even ask for help, she said.”

“She said,” said Delia.

“That’s what I said,” Arielle breathed. “Yeah, I got home, and it was just laying on my bed.”

“Ew, like how she’d lay out your clothes when you were little?”

“She did it for you too.”

Delia grabbed Arielle’s knee. “She got me a dress?”

Arielle laughed. “No, I mean she used to lay out your clothes too.”

“Oh. Only when I’d stay over long enough that she washed my clothes.”

“Which was a lot.”

Laura glanced back at Arielle through the rearview mirror. She had rolled down the window and was leaning her face into the wind. It was too dark for Laura to tell if her eyes were open. In side mirror, she saw Arielle had her hands out the window, holding her palms flat forward like she could slow them.

“It looks like space,” Laura said.

“Huh?” said Arielle. Delia had turned to Laura too, like she had missed something.

“Your dress. When we pass under the streetlights, the sequins flash like space. Like those pictures they show of what space looks like to an astronaut,” said Laura, lifting her chin as if to bounce the words back to Arielle.

“That stuff scares her,” Delia told Laura.

“What are you talking about?” asked Arielle, pulling her arms in.

“You don’t remember that Sandra Bullock movie and how scared you got?”

“At getting stuck in space. Not about being there in the first place.”

Delia wasn’t sure if Arielle’s lip had curled or the shadows were being weird or the tequila. “Yeah, but if you go to space, you have a chance of being lost out there,” she said.

“That’s not the same. Who do you know’s gotten stuck in space?”

“No one knows. The government won’t tell us,” said Laura and laughed and Arielle and Delia laughed too.

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.