Four years, seven months, and 26 days. That’s how long it had been since Duke had walked into the Corner Cafe. It could have been a full five, but he’d gotten off for good behavior. He wasn’t a trouble maker by nature and prison was a good place to dry up if you want to do it.
“Well look who it is.” Verna said as he reclaimed his usual spot at the counter, the second stool from the left.
“Sorry, Verna,” Duke said, “Vacation’s over. Looks like you’re gonna be seeing my ugly mug on the regular, again.”
“Guess my letters to the warden to keep you locked up until I finally retire fell on deaf ears.” Verna flashed him the little twitch that passed as her smile and grabbed him a coke without having to ask. “Whatcha eating?”
Duke had thought long and hard about the answer to that question. Saliva pooled as he placed his order. It had been a long time since he’d been able to choose what he wanted to eat and it felt fantastic. “A cheeseburger. Medium. With extra bacon. And fries.”
Verna walked off to put in his order. Duke looked around. The restaurant was nearly deserted. It was two o’clock in the afternoon, not exactly prime eating time. He was actually going to enjoy a meal in peace. No clatter of cheap silverware against plastic trays. No fights breaking out over the last red Jell-o cup. Just the hiss of his forthcoming hamburger cooking on the grill and the girl at the register periodically snapping her gum over a fashion magazine.
It felt like heaven.
Verna set his burger and fries in front of him. The smell was unreal. “Anything else?” Verna asked in her particular way that told him the correct answer was no.
Verna gave his hand a brisk tap with her pen. “Good. Glad you don’t need a reminder of how we do things around here,” she said and left to go roll silverware into napkins in the back booth. For the first time, Duke noticed the twinge of pity behind Verna’s surly attitude. Maybe it was always there and he just had sharper ears now that he was sober.
Duke stared at his plate for a few seconds and took it all in. He grabbed the hot burger with both hands. Grease dripped down onto the plate when he took a bite. He made a small joyful sound despite himself. They’d had the occasional hamburger in the joint, but they were nothing like this. Those were sad, gray, flimsy things that smelled like wet cardboard and tasted worse. This was a gleaming, savory behemoth. It was juicy and flavorful. The bacon was crisp and salty. The cheese oozed like golden yellow magma. He savored the first taste and then wolfed the rest of it down in five enormous bites. He ate the french fries four at a time and washed it all down with the fizzy coke that made his nose burn and his eyes water.
He ran a finger across the salt and grease spotted plate and licked the whole thing clean. He leaned back and basked in the silence and the satisfied weight he felt in his stomach.