Frank Hudson was almost done feeling bad. He knew the badness was almost over when he woke up on the couch, television still on and tuned to celebrity worship, half-finished beer warm and flat three inches from his dangling hand, and no longer felt an affinity for his own mini-ecosystem. He might as well have been half-watching a terrible movie of his life on Sunday afternoon rabbit-ear TV while eating leftover chili, nursing a hangover, and flipping through his ex-girlfriend’s catalogs for women’s dress pants. The real Frank Hudson never watched “Access Hollywood” and never let his beer get warm and flat and unfinished. He looked at his torso and his legs and the slept-in clothes arranged on them and his unfinished beer and the celebrity gossip program on his television like they were Polaroids stuck to the cheap plastic in old photo albums. He looked at these things again, this time staring hard at them, and felt a gentle, forgiving disgust, the kind strong enough to push him off the couch but weak enough to keep him from retreating right back into the cushions, the warm outline of his body lightly imprinted there. Frank stood up, grabbed the beer can, poured out the remaindered warm flatness in the sink, threw the can in the recycling bin, and walked to the bathroom. He washed his face, burrowed out of his sweaty clothes like a naked mole rat, and took a shower that was epic in length and temperature. He shaved the two-day stubble from his face and looked at the clock radio next to his bed. It was 2:16 on a Thursday afternoon. He still had a week, one-and-a-half days, and two weekends before he had to go back to work.
Frank’s stomach growled, the noise startling him. He’d eaten just enough to live during his wallow in numbness, and the rumblings from his gut surprised him into action. Frank decided a cheeseburger from TL’s Grill was the only way to begin his reengagement with life. His good cholesterol was high, but so was all the bad stuff, and Frank’s doctor wouldn’t leave him alone about it. Frank made a silent but firm decision last year to ignore the man. He would stop eating the foods that made him happy when he was dead. Until then, deliciousness reigned. Frank decided he’d rather have his heart crap out in the early days of old age than live long enough to waste away in a purgatorial dormitory. He thought of that Redd Foxx joke about health nuts feeling stupid dying from nothing and smiled.
Frank stepped outside his door and watched a grackle fly overhead with a tiny string of thin-bulbed Christmas lights wrapped around its neck. The bulbs on the ends of the string bounced in the thick, summer air as the bird flew toward a tree. Frank stared at the grackle and then started walking, laughing quietly to himself as he imagined the ugly bird stringing the lights up in a nest littered with miniature beer bottles and tiny bongs, a tiny television with the Cartoon Network on mute emitting a mini-cathode glow as the world’s tiniest pressing of Pink Floyd’s Meddle played on a little record player, “Echoes” coming from wee speakers.
TL’s Grill was a neighborhood institution and had changed very little in the 35 years since T.L. (no one knew what the initials stood for) Moore bought the place with money saved from working construction during the day and cooking in restaurants at night. The place looked just like it used to when Frank was in college and lived in a dilapidated shithole a block from the restaurant with three other crazy, brilliant idiots. The video stores and record stores he frequented were disappearing fast, but cheeseburgers, like diamonds, were forever. Frank took a seat in a red chrome diner chair with a diamond button pattern on the back at the U-shaped counter. T.L.’s nephew, Gary, was working the slow afternoon shift. Gary used to hang out at Frank’s dilapidated manse for young adults, and while the men were not close friends, they’d remained friendly. Frank watched Gary pound a hunk of raw beef with a spatula and pour a little melted butter and sprinkle some spices into the meat. On a stereo near the counter, Big Bill Broonzy sang to his woman that he was tired of eating her cornbread and beans. Gary was in a blues mood this week. He had eclectic musical taste, like Frank, and Frank never knew what he was going to hear when Gary was working. Tuvan throat singing, British post-punk, Appalachian field recordings. Gary liked it all.
“Gary,” Frank said. “How you been?”
Gary turned around briefly and waved, then turned his head back to the burger he was cooking.
“Good, good. I’ll get you in just a second, Frank.”
Frank hummed along quietly to the Broonzy song and watched the afternoon sunlight shine through the windows. He was starting to feel good again. Gary took his order a few minutes later, and ten minutes after that Frank happily ate a large medium-well burger with sautéed mushrooms, two slices of Swiss cheese, lettuce, and fresh tomatoes, sliced thin. He silently called his doctor vulgar names before each bite and thanked both the cow that made the cheese and the one that became the beef. He wondered if the two cows had ever met each other, and if the cows that got milked were the house Negros of the bovine world. Then he wondered if that was a racist thing to think. In the long minutes between the handful of afternoon customers, Gary and Frank talked about music and women and politics and movies and childhood and music again. Frank had a milkshake about an hour after the burger, and then he switched to beer. He drank the beer slowly and watched the crowd change over from retirees and the unemployed to college kids and high school students on summer vacation, families, and the after-work crowd as afternoon became evening. Frank was still there when Gary’s shift ended and the evening crew arrived. Frank watched them put on their white aprons and switch the radio to a hip-hop station. They rapped along with Jay-Z and Lil’ Wayne and Big Boi while they grilled burgers, ham steaks, pork chops, and chicken breasts and dropped French fries into baskets they lowered into bubbling, hot grease. Gary sat next to Frank on a stool and joined him in a beer. They drank quietly and watched the other people in the restaurant. A short man in the early stages of mid-life with stylish, expensive eyeglasses and blonde hair just beginning to gray held the door open for a small blonde girl. The man was wearing doctor scrubs, the girl a Miley Cyrus t-shirt and pink shoes that lit up when she stepped down. The doctor said hello to Gary and took a seat on a nearby stool. He hoisted the girl up by her waist and sat her in the adjacent stool. “Hey, doc,” Gary said in response. The little girl was pretty, with a pair of grown woman’s eyes that looked out of place next to her childish nose and mouth. Those eyes were remarkably blue, the blue of swimming pools in Technicolor movies. Casey, one of the evening shift workers, walked from the grill to the counter to take their order. Casey was a large man with a permanently sweaty forehead and one of history’s great smiles. The beads of sweat on his forehead were affixed there like a crucifix in a Catholic home and never ran down his face. He pointed his infectious smile at Frank and Gary, who smiled back, and then at the doctor and his daughter. They smiled, too. Casey said hello to the doctor and turned his attention to the little girl. “Hey, pretty-pretty,” he said and pointed his fist toward her. For a brief moment, her smile disappeared, and she made a fist and bumped it into Casey’s fist with intense concentration, her brow furrowing and her bottom lip disappearing under her top lip. After their fists met, her face relaxed and her grin returned. It was one of those early evenings full of fleeting contentment that Frank wished he could freeze in time and extend for a week or two. That it was happening on a Thursday and not a Friday was even more reason to capture it and magically lock it into place.