BJ Condike

BJ Condike

Published On: January 15, 20204 min readCategories: Mystery & Crime

“Just get on with it, Tony!” the detective said. “Tell me what happened at the restaurant tonight.”

“Okay, okay. But it started long before tonight, you know? It all began in 1965…”

***

I was working at Howdy’s Hamburgers that spring—remember them? Curt Gowdy used to do their commercials. He’d start with his signature phrase, “Howdy! I’m Curt Gowdy,” and then go on with the schmaltzy ad. I was earning money to pay my first year’s college tuition, and I really needed the job.

Anyway, it was Friday night. There was the usual rowdy crowd after a basketball game, and that evening the kids acted abnormally crazy. The usual jerks would drink beer and get wild. One jerk always bugged me more than the others, and that was Erik Carlson.

About ten o’clock Carlson swaggered up to the counter. I could tell he was lit up like a Christmas tree.

“Hey, Rocco,” he said, “I see you’re still slinging burgers.”

“My name’s Tony and you know it. What do you want, Carlson?”

“What I don’t want is your attitude, Burger Boy. I want three burgers, two fries, and a Coke. And extra pickles on the burgers.” He leaned into the window and leered at Maria. “I like pickles, don’t you, Maria?”

He was speaking to Maria Esposito, who manned the fryer that night. She ignored Erik and busied herself with the French fries, but I could see color rising to her face.

“That’ll be seventy-six cents, Erik.”

“Wait a minute. You didn’t ring it up. How do you know how much it is?”

“Because I do this for a living.”

“Yeah? Well I don’t believe you. Prove it.”

“Three hamburgers at fourteen cents is forty-two cents.” The register chinged as I slammed the keys. “Two fries at eleven cents is twenty-two cents.” Ching. “And one Coke at twelve cents is twelve cents.” Ching. “Your total is therefore seventy-six cents.” Ching-ching. “Which you would have known if you hadn’t flunked Mr. Hobbs’ math class in eighth grade.”

Carlson sneered and said, “You just got lucky.” He tossed a dollar bill on the counter.

A few minutes later, Carlson elbowed his way to the front of the line.

“Hey, Burger Boy! I told you extra pickles!” He waved a half-eaten burger in my face. “I got no pickles! None!” He peeled away the bun and thrust the mess of ketchup, mustard, and chopped onions at my nose.

Instinctively I leaned back. Erik wound up in a fastball motion and pitched the burger at my head. I ducked and heard a shriek behind me. I turned to see a startled Maria with a half a burger stuck to her hair, and red, yellow, and white splattered over her face and uniform.

I had a thing for Maria. I think she liked me too, but I had yet to work up the courage to ask her out.

I snapped. We kept squeeze bottles by the register for customers who wanted to drench their fries in ketchup. I grabbed one, pointed it at Carlson, and squeezed with both hands, spewing ketchup over his blonde hair and white letter sweater. His resulting red, blonde, and white appearance reminded me of Carlson’s burger. There were no pickles on him, either.

Erik roared, grabbed my shirt, and hauled me over the counter and through the window. Despite his superior size, it was an awkward move, and we tumbled to the floor with me on top. I heard an “Oof” from Erik and he lay still.

When I stood up, my white uniform was smeared in ketchup. We used an industrial brand of ketchup made with Red Dye Number 2, making it a deep red. Some called it blood red.

A co-ed saw me and screamed, then another. One of the parochial school kids punched a public-school kid. Soon everyone was fighting. Someone ran to the parking lot to fetch the cops who were always there on game nights. They called for back-up. And an ambulance. The cops shut down Howdy’s that night.

***

“That explains your arrest record,” the detective said. “What’s the rest of the story?”

“The rest of the story is that the Howdy’s manager fired me and wouldn’t give me a reference. Between that and my arrest record I couldn’t get the jobs I needed to earn money for college, so I never went. I gave what money I had to my brother Leo, and he went to school instead. He graduated in restaurant management and opened the Gondola restaurant here in town.”

“Where you were working tonight as a waiter.”

“Yeah. Don’t get me wrong. I like my brother, and I’m thankful he lets me work there, but he makes us wear these ridiculous outfits.” I stood up to display a white shirt and green pants, with a red sash tied at the hip like a cummerbund. Red spots peppered the shirt like a Jackson Pollock painting. “I know they’re the colors of Italy’s flag and everything, but I look like an underprivileged pirate. Besides, who wears white in an Italian restaurant? All that marinara…”

“What has that got to do with tonight?”

“It shows motivation and state of mind. There are extenuating circumstances around what happened.”

“Let’s get to that.”

“So, I’m walking by this table tonight, and I hear someone say, ‘What’s that smell? It must be another Dago greaseball waiter.

“I turned, and there was Erik Carlson wearing a sneer, with his wife Maria at his side. Yeah, that Maria. And sitting on the table was a squeeze bottle of ketchup. It triggered me, you know? For the second time in my life I lost it.”

“And?”

“The squeeze bottle was within easy reach. But so was the steak knife. I don’t know what came over me. I grabbed the knife and stabbed him. I’m not sure how many times. I got tired after a while. Like I said, there were extenuating circumstances.”

***

Note: A version of this story won 1st Place in the Granbury Writers’ Bloc monthly contest in January 2020, and 1st Place in the 2022 Kathryn McClatchy Flash Fiction Contest sponsored by the Writers Guild of Texas.

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