Chicken Nuggets or Bust
The Truth about In-N-Out Burger
A cut story from the literary fiction novel, Last Chance California.
Summer drove us out of the city in her old black Cougar, which barely held together. She constantly fidgeted with the clutch, but we made it to a strip mall in one piece.
A line of cars wrapped around the parking lot surrounding Summer’s perfect hangover cure. People exploded out of the building, blowing into their bags to cool their scalding-hot fries. The impatient tossed their fries into their mouths only to have them bounce around inside, burning their cheeks with every blow.
“Drive-through or dine in?” Summer asked when we pulled up to an In-N-Out Burger.
“Might be quicker inside.”
“I don’t know, dude.”
Drive throughs triggered one of the only childhood memories I could remember. A traumatic childhood memory.
“I hate drive-throughs,” I said.
“That seems crazy.”
“You have no idea.”
Summer laughed. “I’ve known you for how long, and I didn’t know you hated drive-throughs.”
Maybe I was overreacting.
But I was too embarrassed to admit why I wanted to dine in.
“You don’t want to know,” I said.
Summer jerked the wheel toward the endless row of cars.
“If you don’t tell me why, swear to Christ, I’ll pull into this line.”
“They’re called fast-food joints, but it’s never fast in the fucking drive-throughs,” I lied. “Fuck. I hate it. It’s so stupid.”
Better to appear crazy and angry than admit the truth.
It’s what I told myself.
“All right then, psycho,” Summer said. “We’ll dine in.”
Summer and I stood at the end of the line, against In-N-Out Burger’s front glass doors. Eager people stood over tables, stalking eating diners, ready to pounce on a table as soon as it became available. A few poor souls ate on top of trash cans, while people with no food sat at tables, holding them for some time.
“You shouldn’t be able to do that,” I said.
“Do what?” Summer asked.
“Sit at a table without food. That’s fucked up.”
“That’s called planning ahead,” Summer said.
As we inched closer to the counter, the faint sizzling of burgers on the grill and the splash of a fryer catching a basket of freshly cut potatoes drowned out all the chattering people.
The In-N-Out employees wore white paper boat hats with red-and-white aprons and uniforms. Some staff shouted out numbers. Three cashiers took orders. Cooks flipped burgers. Runners captured the hamburger meat in buns and bagged the grub. Five rows of people jockeyed for position in front of the pickup counter, waiting to be served their fat and calories. Everyone sniffed their food before checking their bags’ contents. No one trusted the baggers.
The joint was a powder keg ready to blow with one missed pickle.
“Is it always like this?” I asked.
“Every time I’ve been.”
Fifteen minutes later, I understood the chaos.
I took my first bite of a juicy Double Double. Secret sauce oozed onto my hands. Onions and lettuce spattered onto my tray. I must have told Summer the burger was amazing at least a dozen times.
A family of four watched Summer and I devour our food, hoping to capture the table as their own.
“You know this is my first fast-food burger,” I said as we finished up the little that remained our food.
“I’ve seen you eat a burger before.”
“Not a fast-food burger.”
“Thirty-plus years. Zero fast-food burgers. Chicken nuggets or bust, baby.”
“Get out of here,” Summer said.
“I heard about In-N-Out when I was a kid. I’ve been saving myself.”
Summer laughed. “How did you hear about In-N-Out as a kid? Was it in an encyclopedia? And what kid researches In-N-Out Burger?”
“I was a little obsessed with the California.”
“Oh, I know.”
“I read about In-N-Out in a book I read as I kid. It was called The History of California. There were a few paragraphs that talked about famous companies founded in California. In-N-Out was mentioned. After reading that, I vowed to never eat a fast-food burger until I lived in California.”
“You were a weird fucking kid.”
“And you know what?” I drowned the last of my fries in the leftover special sauce that found a home on my red tray. “It was all fucking worth it.”
“This scratched a three-decade itch,” I said.
“If only you were this dedicated in any other part of your life.”
“Lord knows what I’d accomplish.”
“I got one more surprise to help with the hangover,” Summer said.
I gathered my trash and placed it onto my tray.
As soon as I lifted an ass cheek to get up from my chair, a mother of four, who spent the last fifteen minutes studying my eating habits, sprang into action. She slammed her hips into me and slid into my former seat. The blow forced me to stumble and nearly fall to the floor. The woman and her family chatted among themselves at their new table. They didn’t have any food.
Summer pulled me by the arm out of the joint before I said something stupid.