Murtry knew he was in trouble as soon as the burger asked if it could smoke in the cab.
He’d be damned if he’d ever seen a giant, living, talking hamburger before. And yet there it was, as big as life, slowly dripping ketchup onto the leather passenger seats of the cab of his truck.
It was an ugly son of a bitch, too. Bits of lettuce and pickle were hanging out all over the place, the bread was hard and stale, and it only had a few remaining sesame seeds left on top of its bun. Behind a battered pair of sunglasses it had big bloodshot eyes that it rolled at him for emphasis whenever it was making a point.
Murtry’s father had been the same, forever winning debates on the interior design circuit by announcing that taupe was a terrible colour for a man’s boudoir, tan was only suitable for a Frenchman’s study, and that you’d better not even get him started on zinnwaldite, and then he’d roll his eyes, in a very similar way to how the burger was currently doing in the cab of Murtry’s truck. At that point the audience would clap and cheer and Murtry’s father’s latest opponent, beaten and sagging at the shoulders, would shrink from the podium.
Murtry’s father had been immensely disappointed that his son hadn’t wanted to follow him into the trade of picking out colour samples that perfectly matched the decoration of a house’s interior to its furnishing, mainly because it deprived Murtry’s father of the opportunity that he’d been waiting for for years. Murtry’s father had dreamed of the day when his son got married and he could elbow Murtry’s mother as their son walked down the aisle and say ‘Well you can bet the carpet matches the drapes!’
Murtry’s father had been a crude and unpleasant man with no social graces, but by God he could co-ordinate a new chaise lounge to a crowded family room. It had been a grim winter day when he had thrown Murtry out of his house, proclaiming ‘No son of mine is going to drive trucks for a living! My God – what will the guys at the office think? They’ll think that you’re some kind of homosexual, that’s what.’
And Murtry had stood on the front lawn, silent in the cold rain, as Murtry’s father went back inside to sit with a hot mug of cocoa and carefully place pictures of a flax-coloured armchair next to pictures of an International Klein Blue set of curtains, to see how they matched.
It stopped raining a few seconds after that, and Murtry’s father came outside and lightly sprayed Murtry with a garden hose. Angry as he was, Murtry’s father had realised that later in his life, Murtry would want as much drama present in this remembered scene as possible, and he was willing, on this point at least, to oblige his son. Murtry silently nodded his thanks, and walked away in what he would later describe to people as rain.
If only the old man knew what the future held, Murtry thought. If I’d followed his advice, I’d never be sitting here right now in the dead of night, giving a giant talking hamburger a lift.
Sure, he’d once seen a man dressed as a hot dog dancing for pennies on a street corner in Tulsa, but it really wasn’t the same.
‘Come on, whaddaya say, pal?’ the burger asked him, reaching into its jacket for a battered pack of cigarettes. ‘You want one?’ it said, holding the pack out to Murtry. Murtry looked at it. There was a red smear of ketchup across the thin plastic wrapper on the pack.‘Um… no,’ Murtry said. ‘And I’d prefer it if you didn’t…’
‘Oh man, are you gonna bust my balls now?’ the burger said. It was starting to look kind of annoyed. Murtry was getting worried. He wasn’t a small man, but the burger was big. Big and beefy. There had to be at least four meat patties in there. And Murtry wasn’t sure, but he thought he could smell bacon. The burger stared at Murtry for a second longer and then sighed. It put the packet of cigarettes back in its jacket.
‘Hey, sorry man,’ the burger said. ’Didn’t mean to get all riled up there. You’re the one doing me a favour, right? You’re my pal. And a man needs all the pals that he can get in this life.’
‘Yeah, my old lady kicked me out,’ the burger said, conversationally. ‘That was back in Minnesota. Ever since then I’ve been just kinda making my way across the country, meeting people, maybe working a gig for a couple of weeks here or there.’
The burger noticed that one of its shoelaces was untied and reached down to tie the boot back up. Did the two of you splitting up by any chance have anything to do with the fact that you’re a giant talking hamburger? Murtry yearned to ask the burger.
’You’ve probably noticed,’ the burger said heavily, ‘that my clothes have seen better days.’ It looked Murtry square in the eye, as if daring him to contradict it.‘Huh?’ Murtry said. ‘Oh… no. Not at all. I didn’t really notice that, no.’ Do you find it hard to find clothes that fit you properly because you’re a fucking giant hamburger? he wondered silently.
’It’s OK,’ the burger said. ‘I know that my jacket’s wearing a little thin at the elbows. I need to find a job, buckle down, get myself a new set of threads. But no-one running a business wants to hire a drifter, you know? Nobody wants to give me a chance.’
The burger sighed deeply, staring out the window and into the night as the lights of houses flashed by. It instinctively reached for the pack of cigarettes in its pocket, but, with a sidelong glance at Murtry, it sighed again and let its hand fall back down into its lap.
‘I had a steady job for a while there,’ the burger said. ‘I was working in a warehouse, packing boxes full of clothespegs. When I went for the job interview the manager asked me why I wanted to work at their warehouse. I looked him right in the eye and I said hey – people are always, always going to need clothespegs. I worked there for three months. Had a good thing going on. And do you know what happened?’
‘No,’ said Murtry, shaking his head.
‘The boss comes up to me one day while I’m packing pegs, and he tells me that it would be better if I left. He said people were getting nervous. So I asked him why people would be getting nervous. And do you know what that little asshole said to me?’
‘Did he say that people were getting nervous because you’re a giant ha – no, actually. I have no idea what he said to you,’ Murtry said, and swallowed hard. He wondered if it was starting to get hotter in the truck.
‘He said that people were getting nervous because apparently, get this, because “I displayed disdain for Mexicans in the workplace.” Can you believe that shit? He straight up called me a racist.’
‘Oh,’ said Murtry. ‘That’s… that’s too bad.’
‘Fuckin’ A right it’s too bad,’ the burger said. ‘Man, that really got me steamed up.’
‘Yeah,’ said Murtry, searching for something to say. ‘You, uh, you look pretty steamed up just talking about it.’
‘Whoa, buddy,’ the burger said. ‘Are you asking me to take off my shirt? Because I appreciate the ride and everything, but, you know, that’s not my thing. Not that I have a problem with that if it’s your thing. I’m not going to judge you.’
‘Oh, no,’ said Murtry. ‘That’s not my thing either. I was just saying that you looked kind of annoyed about the whole thing.’ As annoyed, in fact, as I’ve ever seen a giant hamburger to be.
‘Damn straight I’m annoyed,’ the burger said. ‘I mean, how would you like it if someone told you that you were a racist?’
‘I wouldn’t like it,’ said Murtry. I bet none of the hamburgers I’ve ever eaten would like it either.
‘Great minds think alike, huh?’ the burger said. And it clicked its knuckles, one by one, tightening the springs of Murtry’s nervousness. ‘Yeah, I reckon you and me could be good buddies,’ it said. ‘Just think of it – me and you, driving across the country together, solving crimes, breaking up fights in bars, chasing skirt. Yeah, it’d be A-OK.’
‘Excuse me?’ Murtry said. ‘Did you just say that we should be a team or something? Because that’s a little bit weird. We just met.’
‘Well, yeah,’ the burger said awkwardly. ‘You know, I figured that we could hang out and stuff for a bit after you pull into the next town. Just for a while. See how it feels.’
‘Well, I’m sorry,’ Murtry said. ‘But I’ve got to get this shipment across two states tonight, and I’m running late already, so…’
‘Oh. Sure. Sure. The shipment. Yeah, I forgot about that,’ the burger said, looking uncomfortable.
‘I mean, if I was driving back home or something, maybe we could catch a beer,’ Murtry began. If giant hamburgers drink beer, that is, he mentally added.
‘Oh yeah. Yeah. I understand. It’s cool,’ the burger said.
They traveled the next twenty minutes in silence. They reached the outskirts of a town and the burger took a deep breath.
‘You can just drop me here,’ it said. As it climbed down from the cab, its tattered bag swung over one shoulder, the smell of cooked meat wafting around it, it said to Murtry, ‘Hey man. Thanks for the ride. You’re an alright guy.’
‘And you’re a goddamn hamburger!’ Murtry yelled, and slammed his foot on the accelerator. The truck roared away from the town, leaving the burger to grow smaller and smaller in the rearview mirror.
Murtry let out a long breath and rubbed his hand over his eyes. That was the last time he picked up a hitch-hiker.
A man. A hamburger. A late-night drive.