I read a poem once where the gist was that it’s the “small” things that will drive men to terrible acts. It’s not man’s inhumanity to man or the death of a loved one or economic ruin. It’s breaking a shoestring that will lead man to murder. It’s missing a freeway exit that will make man contemplate a potential massacre of his family. It’s the low murmur of pigeons on a man’s roof that will drive him to suicide.
And it’s the way a man prepared his Big Boy hamburger one afternoon in Roseville that proved to me that a poem can be more than the fluffy nonsense of the overly sensitive.
“I would like my burger without lettuce, please. And can you put it on a separate plate? I don’t want my burger on the same plate as my fries. And can we get more seasoning salt? Our seasoning salt seems to be out? Oh! No ice in the Coke, please,” ordered the soft-spoken fellow in front of me.
Actually, there was a lot that was “soft” about 42-year-old Ned Grapple, as we’ll call him, from Sterling Heights. From his curly brown hair to his wire-rim glasses, from his corduroy pants to the well-worn flannel shirt covering his narrow shoulders, Ned exuded a vague “pleasantness.” His smile was thin-lipped and dull.
His demands were so quietly emitted, with his hands delicately holding the menu, that I began to feel uncomfortable. His demeanor was robotically sociable. He had no jagged edges. And those hands, with those long, delicate, perfectly proportioned fingers … those hands terrified me.
Terror isn’t what one normally feels in a Big Boy restaurant. Everything they do here is to discourage terror. There is the fake hominess of the fake (or are they real?) plants, the woody veneer of the booths, the warm light glowing from the soup and salad bar. The customers are grandmas and kids in highchairs and women in business attire. Not a raving lunatic in the bunch. Yet I was terribly fearful. I usually am when I’m not supposed to be. The wiring got fried during gestation, I think. Soothing things make me nervous. A massage makes me jumpy, hot cocoa gives me the willies.
And Ned completely unnerved me.
He didn’t tap his fingers on the table, he didn’t twist the paper from the straw into little balls. He just sat there. Making pleasant conversation.
Ned’s burger was delivered with a rat-a-tat of “Let me know if I can get you anything else, OK? My name is Lisa.” Lisa was busy, and I don’t think she wanted to hear any more of Ned’s bullshit about his burger or his Coke or how many plates he needed. She was letting us know we were on our own.
Ned removed the top bun of his double-decker. He looked and slowly nodded.
“A little too much sauce” he muttered and reached for his butter knife. His long brown fingers walked along atop the booth until they bumped into his silverware setup. His eyes never left the burger. He used the knife to slowly push the sauce just to the edge of the burger.
“Why didn’t you just get it without sauce?” I was surprised at how angry this sounded. He seemed surprised. A little hurt, perhaps. With a slightly defensive inflection, he said:
“Because I like a little sauce on it, not too much sauce, but I like a little on it. They always put too much on it.” His eyes were still riveted on the task at hand, the removal of the sauce from the top patty of a Big Boy.
“Why don’t you just order the sauce on the side then? Then you can put on as much as you want? Huh? Doesn’t that sound about right, Ned?” He wasn’t getting the job done with any efficiency. I was half done with my sandwich and he was still plodding along. I wanted to reach across the table and wipe the sauce off with my dirty, oily fingers.
He finally looked up.
“Why does it bother you?” he drawled.
“It does. It bothers me. It bothers me that you’re playing with that thing like you’re icing a fucking birthday cake! Get it over with! Eat it, fer chrissakes. Put the knife down and eat it!”
I wanted to slap his gentle, pleasant face.
“I’m going to eat it when I’m good and ready to eat it. It’s not ready to eat right now. They put too much sauce on it, and I’m taking the excess sauce off. Again, why do you care?” he asked politely.
“Because you’re an idiot, that’s why.” I spit, resurrecting a retort popular with 10 year olds.
“No, I think we know who the idiot is right now” he calmly replied.
It was then that I wanted him dead. It wasn’t a fantasy. I really wanted him dead.
Watching someone remove Big Boy special sauce from their burger inspired me to murder.
But you should have seen it!
He was wrong!
Don’t you understand?
He was doing it all wrong!Dan Demaggio dines with interesting people for Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org