Unlike most people who live near restaurants, I never visit the fast-food place next to my house. Chunkee’s looks like any other corporate restaurant. The shellacked exterior, the vibrant sign a mile high announcing its presence like a lighthouse, the drive-thru menu with its voice-box speaker. I’ve never seen a Chunkee’s anywhere else, and I’ve never seen a commercial for one, and I don’t know what kind of food they serve other than fast. The sign doesn’t give much away. I watch it change every day, but the bottom always says NO BURGERS HERE!!!!!! From the window next to my TV I can see the long sticks the employees use to change the letters, but by the time I work up the energy to get up and look at the people doing it they’ve finished the job and have gone back inside. When I try to look through the windows to see what kind of person eats there, all I see is shiny glass with vague, shadowy shapes behind it and a line of cars waiting in the drive-thru.
Some days the sign says $5, and nothing else. Often it says COME GET THE BOX. I like when it says 3 FOR 12. It’s like a logic puzzle. Three of what? Twelve what? Presumably dollars are involved. Once—only once—the sign read LUMPS. The drive-thru line moved steadily that day. As soon as one driver rode off with their lumps another car would come to take its place at the end of the queue in perfect time, every time. I’d never seen it like that. I stayed inside all day watching the cars get their lumps. The shadow-puppet people inside the restaurant made it look so full, but I never saw anyone come or go. I came so close to going down there, to seeing what all the fuss was about, but I had a date to prepare for.
I’ve been seeing a pattern with the men I’ve dated lately. One beautiful date, a few days of texting after that, and then they vanish into the air. Ryan and I went for cupcakes and played video games demos in an electronics store that was going out of business. He wore a too-big sweater and tight jeans. He opened up to me about his past, his hopes for the future, where he sees his life going, and the poetic nuance of foosball. At the end of the date he parked in my driveway where we made out for a few minutes before he said, “Welp, here you go!” He pulled out of my driveway and into Chunkee’s.
Next was Alex. He looked like Vincent van Gogh, but with both ears, and he worked across the street from where I worked. After Alex came Jeffrey who had a piercing anywhere you could pinch a flap of skin together. Jeffrey preceded Mark, who came before Mitchell, Frank, another Alex, Drew, Joe, River, Ben and yet another Alex. All men who came and went at breakneck speed. It’s fun to imagine them stuck somewhere. I liked to think of them trapped in a man-sized jar with air-holes punched into the screwed-on lid. They could wrap themselves up in a chrysalis of their own design and emerge not as the boys they had so recently been, but as beautiful men with distinctive markings and impressive wingspans.
I could tell it was going to happen again. Justin and I went to a sushi restaurant where they deliver your maki on remote-controlled cars. We stopped for drinks at an alien-themed tiki bar on the way home. I asked if he wanted to come inside when I drove us back to my place.
“Yeah, I guess, if you mean we’ll do sex,” he said. I was stunned when he stayed the night, and so was he when he woke up the next morning.
“Oh, you’re still here,” he said. To me. In my bedroom.
I looked longingly at him, “Sure am!”
He shuffled out the door tucking his shirt into his unzipped pants.
“We’ll have to do this again sometime!” he said. “I’ll text you very soon. You can, and should, count on it!”
His car followed the same familiar route, but instead of going through the drive-thru he parked and went into Chunkee’s. As he opened the door a delicious smell filled my apartment. The sign read LUMPS. It was only the second time it had ever said that in the years I’d lived there. I drooled. My stomach gurgled. I threw on last night’s clothes and headed out the door. I walked past my car and set foot on the Chunkee’s parking lot, which was closer to the restaurant than I’d ever been before. I expected the door to expel me. Or, if not, that my hand would pass through it like air. But no, the door was real, and it opened, and a smell rich like gravy, but heavy with grease, delicious, seeped out and clung to me. It pulled me into the restaurant, which looked just as normal inside as it did outside. The same molded plastic booths you’d expect from any burger palace, the fountain drink machine, the yellow bucket with a mop sticking out.
While a lot of customers sat eating at tables, none stood in line and I walked straight up to the cashier, who I recognized as Ryan of the big sweater. His name tag was pinned to it, obscuring part of the alpine pattern. When we’d gone out he’d told me of the job he loved at a store in the mall that sold engraved chocolate family portraits. So I was surprised to see him in Chunkee’s, or at all. He, however seemed elated.
“So great to see you! I meant to text you back, but, you know.”
I didn’t know what to say! He blinked and his eyes turned big and black and segmented like a bug’s.
“What’ll it be today?”
“LUMPS,” I drooled.
His sweater stirred. The knit pattern had a veiny look to it I’d never noticed before. He turned around to fetch my lumps and his sweater unfolded into a massive pair of wings. The air felt warm and moist. I looked for air holes drilled into the ceiling. He returned with the tray of food, two antennae wagging out of his forehead.
“Here you go. LUMPS!”
I took the tray to a table. The lumps resembled a deep-fried pillow, big and crispy on the plate. All around me I saw Justin and Jeffrey and a table full of Alexes. Mark and Mitchell and Frank and Joe. All these men who had vanished from my life, sitting around the restaurant in front of their lumps. They wiggled their antennas and flapped their wings at me, except Jeffrey, whose wings were too heavy with piercings.
I took a seat and joined them. Ben gave me a flirty wink with one of his segmented eyes. I lifted the lumps, inhaled its chewy scent, unrolled my proboscis and dug in.
Art by Bob Schofield @anothertower