Hamburger Dan’s

I went to work for Hector three years ago. I had been on the road for the past six months, and was down to my last $10. A truck driver dropped me off at the four way stop in the middle of god knows where. There was a gas station on one corner, and a run down eatery on another.

I walked into the dilapidated building with a faded sign attached to the front advertising itself as Hamburger Dan’s, and after spending $6.95 for a plain burger, no fries, and a glass of water I asked the man at the grill if he knew of anyplace around that was hiring. He just pointed to a sink full of dishes. I got the message. He got a dishwasher.

Oh, it’s been an interesting three years. I haven’t been promoted. I haven’t been demoted, either. I have just been. I’ve been the best dishwasher in this part of the state. I still make minimum wage, but I have a place to lay my head, and I keep my belly full. I even put a few dollars away for that time I might find myself back on the road—or, should I say the side of the road with my thumb in the air. And, there’s always a little change left over for a pint of cheap whiskey.

Let me tell you how I happen to be in this mess I find myself in. Not long ago I was a bank manager making a decent living. My wife and I lived in an upscale neighborhood, and we drove new cars. We had the best of everything. We were your typical DINK’s—double income, no kids.

That wife of mine even talked me into joining the country club in town. I don’t golf, and I hate tennis, but the place had a decent bar. And, an even nicer waitress. That’s where my troubles began.

That waitress—let’s call her Lois—had the nicest set of 36 double d’s you ever wanted to see. She let a lot of guys see them, too. Let me tell you, they came with a price. I know that first hand.

Lois liked her nose candy. I had the income to supply her with a little now and then. The problem was that the now and then became closer and closer together. And, my nose took a liking to her candy, too.

After a couple of years of fooling around with Lois, my wife discovered what we were up to. By then our bank accounts were a bit bare, and my retirement savings had been raided enough times that there were more dustballs than greenbacks in the account. My wife filed for divorce, and the judge sided with her.

Everything I had left I packed into my two year old Dodge Charger and left town. Six months later the Dodge and I parted company. I’m not a big man and sure as hell can’t carry much, so the rest of the crap I was lugging around found its way into the pawn shops that populate the seedier sides of towns across this country. Those areas are about the only places I know where I had the possibility of feeding my habit. Cocaine is not cheap, but I instinctively knew where it might be found in each city I visited, for however long that visit lasted. I just happened to run out of money before I ran out of habit.

When I met Hector the only thing I had left was the clothes on my back, an extra pair of jeans, two t-shirts, and some underwear and socks shoved into a beat up old backpack I was carrying. I’ve come up a bit in the world. I now have a new pair of jeans and a pearl snap shirt I picked up at the Goodwill for those times I might wander into town. I still wear the same pair of hiking boots I had when I arrived, but they serve their purpose and still have a few miles left in them.

Town is just two miles down the road, and I have discovered that it is fairly easy to hitch a ride. Getting back is another story all together. There’s been a couple of times I’ve had to call Hector from the city jail. But since he needs a dishwasher he’s always been there for me. I’m afraid one day, though, he might get tired of bailing me out of the hoosegow. I just hope it’s not too soon. I still have a few more dollars I need to save to get me out of this mess I’m in. But, since I’m kind of comfortable in this mess, I’m in no particular hurry.

I live in a little shack out behind the restaurant. It’s not much, but it stays warm in the winter, and the bed is comfortable. There’s not much else to do out in these parts, so I listen to the radio that the last dishwasher left behind, and I read a lot.

The gas station closes every night about an hour after we do. Hector leaves shortly before the proprietor of the station does, leaving me the only soul for miles around. I kind of like it that way. It gives me time to think and plan for when I get back on my feet. I hope that time gets here soon, because I’m not getting any younger. The aches and pains that come with age remind me of that every morning.

Mr. Morris left his newspaper on the counter again. I think he does that so I have something current to read. He knows I can’t afford to buy my own copy, and I sure as hell am not going to take a handout just so I can keep up on the news. It’s all the same day in and day out anyway, and I have the local radio station to let me know if anything exciting happens. Who knows. The earth might move one day, and I sure don’t want to miss that. I doubt if it can move the way Lois did, though. But you never know.

The headlines today is about that young lady that went missing last week. She makes the eighth one since I’ve been living here. That works out to almost three a year.

It seems these women leave home to go shopping and never return. The cops usually find their cars abandoned out near the old quarry, or over at the rest stop just south of town. The authorities don’t have a clue. There’s no rhyme, nor reason, as to what happens to these missing girls. I call them girls, because they’re all so young. They range in age from 19 to 26. Six of them were married, and two were not. The investigators have ruled out husbands, boyfriends, and family members as being responsible for these disappearances. Hell, they even questioned me since I was new in town, but that didn’t go anywhere. Over the past eleven years nineteen young ladies have gone missing. It all started long before I arrived.

There’s not much else in the newspaper that is able to hold my interest. The Cowboys lost again. That’s a plus. The Islanders won. That’s a big plus. The Lakers lost. Another plus. The baseball players are threatening to strike in the spring. That would be a shame, but it won’t affect me one way or the other. I don’t care much for baseball. I like a sport that moves a bit faster than that. Maybe not as fast as Lois, but definitely faster that a four hour baseball game.

On the national front the President is on his way to Europe for some damned meeting with other heads of state, the outcome of which will not drastically affect my way of living. Locally? It’s all about the missing girl.

Hector wants me to update the specials sign. Yesterday we had meatloaf. Today he’s serving enchiladas. That means we’re going to be busy. The man makes some great meatloaf, but his enchiladas are killer. When the word gets out people come from miles around to satisfy their hunger. I have to make sure everything we have is clean, because keeping up with the crowd in here on enchilada night is a struggle. But that’s okay. I’ll keep my belly full of some of the best eating this side of the Pecos. Probably the other side, too, but I’ve never been there, so I don’t know. I’ve got a fresh bottle in my room to comfort me after work, so it’s all good.

It’s been a helluva night. I think it’s the busiest night we’ve had in a long time. Hector is down to his last pan of enchiladas and it’s 15 minutes to closing time. Mr. and Mrs. Johnston are the only customers left the place. I’ve been able to stay on top of things, so I should be able to finish cleaning up shortly after Hector turns out the lights. That bottle of bourbon I have tucked under the mattress is calling my name.

The bell on the front door jingles as Officer Wiley and the local sheriff’s deputy push their way in out of the cold. They make themselves comfortable at the booth near the front window. Hector just yells from the counter, “Y’all want the enchiladas?”

“Why else would we be in here, Hector? I’ve been bragging on your enchiladas all night long, so don’t let me down. I’ve got a bet with Henderson here that they’re the best he’s ever had.” We can always count on Wiley. If he isn’t bringing someone in with him, he’s coming alone. He really enjoys Hector’s food, especially the enchiladas. I think the meatloaf runs a close second.

Mr. and Mrs. Johnston have just left, and Wiley and Henderson are tucked into their dinner. Neither one of them are speaking. They are too busy devouring the enchiladas, rice, and beans Hector had placed in front of them. I am leaning against the wall, all caught up with the dishes, and contemplating the idea of mixing my bourbon with some coke. I usually drink it straight, but tonight I just feel I need a bit of sweetness to go with the burn from the bottle under my mattress.

“Hey, Johnny watch the counter. I’ve got to visit the little boy’s room.” Hector tosses his apron on the counter and heads off to the back of the building where the restrooms are. He’s always calling me Johnny. I don’t know why. That’s not my name, but whatever. As long as I get paid, and he doesn’t call me late for a plate of is fine cuisine. I say fine cuisine with tongue in cheek. It’s not bad, but I wouldn’t call it fine.

Henderson begins to choke. Wiley jumps up to slap the man on his back when the deputy spits something into his napkin. The two law enforcement officers study the object that Henderson holds in his palm. From my vantage point all I can see is that it’s small. Probably just a piece of bone that got ground up in the meat. That’s really unusual, but not unheard of. The ground meat Hector uses is usually high grade.

Wiley and Henderson each drop some money on the table and leave before Hector returns. That’s not like our local lawman. He typically enjoys hanging around talking as we close. We have to run him off. I pick up their dishes, and clean the table. It won’t take me long to wash their plates, silverware, and glasses, sweep, mop, and close up.

Hector is counting the till and I am just finishing up mopping the floor when there’s a knock on the front door. We both look up to see Wiley and the Chief of Police standing there. The back door opens and that county mountie, Henderson, steps inside with a shotgun in his hands, pointed our way.

I unlock the door and let the two officers in. The chief is the first one to speak. “Hector, I think we need to talk. Henderson found an interesting object in the enchilada he was eating.”

“Chief, I just knew it was a matter of time. My meat grinder is getting old, and not as good as it could be. I should have bought a new one a long time ago.”

What the hell is Hector talking about? I’m a bit confused. What’s his meat grinder have to do…. I’m beginning to feel a little green around the gills.

Wiley begins reading Hector his rights as he handcuffs him. “Hector, you’re under arrest for murder. You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can be….”

“I know my damned rights, Fat Boy. You sure liked my meatloaf, though, didn’t you? And, those enchiladas are to die for, aren’t they?”

Hector just smiles, his gold front tooth shining brightly in the diner’s dim lights. I will definitely be sick before this night is over. There’s not enough whiskey in the world to take that taste out of my mouth, or those thoughts out of my head.

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