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I think the moment I really accepted that our world had, inexorably, ended, was when I was standing shoulder to shoulder with the guy who ran the family diner just down the road from my house. Shoved together with strangers to try and survive, I had mostly assumed every face I saw was just someone in town. However, when I glanced to my right, here was this stocky dude, prickly jaw set with a grim straight line for a mouth, and a thick neck I recognized. See, at the diner, he was one of the main cooks, and so you usually saw him on the line through the kitchen window behind the counter, his head dipped down over the stovetop, his thick neck about the only thing you could see popping out above his apron strings. Of course, I’d seen the guy’s face a couple of times, but it would always take a moment. I remember one time he was cooking burgers on a grill at a big picnic. I had said the burgers tasted like the ones from Cheep’s place, and he just laughed an “I hope so, otherwise I’ve lost my touch.”
So here I was, rubbing elbows with the guy who cooked the best burgers in town, both of us so far away from everything we knew. When my family left, we packed up everything we could and just disappeared, some people stayed with nowhere else to go, or they trusted the military enough to keep them safe. I used to think those people were morons, risking their lives just so they could pretend everything was peachy keen outside their front door. Turns out even Cheep himself figured it’d be best to get outta Dodge. At the time, I hadn’t realized that I ended up staring at him, and when he saw me gawking at him, Cheep just looked down and nodded so slightly I almost didn’t see it. I could just imagine him closing up shop, leaving a note on the door that he’s sorry he couldn’t be open. Later on, when we had a chance to talk about it, he even told me he missed cooking, and felt sorry for leaving people behind in town, something about how they wanted to stay and try to keep life normal, and he was such a pillar of normalcy that when he up and left, it made their illusion that much more fragile, harder to keep up.
Friday nights at Cheep’s used to be the thing people did. Summer nights rolled around, parents came home from work, took the kids to Cheep’s. Finally worked up the courage to ask Cindy out on a date? You went to Cheep’s, shared a milkshake like it was forty years ago. With that pillar missing from the community, what really was left? Picket fences wouldn’t keep the danger out; finally locking your doors wouldn’t stop your family from burning alive; getting dad’s shotgun from the cabinet wasn’t going to make you the new man of the house after he was drafted, you’d just die screaming a few moments before the rest of your family did. Honestly, what the hell was some burgers gonna do, either? Probably good for a final meal, at most. Didn’t have the heart to say anything like that to Cheep, or to anyone, really. We all need those lies we tell ourselves, otherwise you might as well deepthroat a rifle and call it a day, or walk out past the barricades and see what gets you, if you’d rather not leave a mess for someone else.
So there I am, standing next to Cheep, the burger guy himself, and that’s when it finally hits me that the world has ended. Obviously I know that it ended way sooner than that, but maybe there was something in my heart that I hadn’t realized I was holding onto until now. I guess, for some reason, I figured that when all this was over, I’d go back to Cheep’s, park my ass down in a stool at the counter, order a Sprite, and then laugh about this whole apocalypse thing with everyone else in town. Like, “Wasn’t that some shit everyone?” Cheep would turn his head ever-so-slightly from the fryer, and then just let out this gravelly, booming “Aaaaaaahh wasn’t nothing,” because Cheep was in Viet Nam…or Korea. Whichever one we ended up calling a “police action” instead of “that one war we lost.” Cheep has seen some shit, so hey, if he can shrug off the end of the world, what have I got to worry about?
Turns out, quite a bit. When Cheep gave me that sullen little nod, I should have realized what it meant. “We’re in the shit now, boy. Sorry. No burgers here, just shit.” There was no going back. No Cheep’s diner, no cul de sac, no bike rides on hot days gliding down the big hill to feel the wind cool you down. Just…shit. My heart sank into my stomach, the first thing to settle there in two days, even if it was metaphorical. I look at Cheep, like he’s the last chopper out of Saigon, and it’s already flying into the sunset like the picture on the playbill, and I realize my mouth is watering. Looking at this stocky, unshaven brickhouse of a dude who used to make the best food in the tri-county area is when I realize it’s the end of the world.
Because I can’t even remember what his burgers used to taste like, and I’d never be able to remember.