by Bruce Woods
Even the most well-meaning of laws can have unfortunate consequences; and few would argue the intent of legislation designed to feed the needy. In fact, the law itself was probably unnecessary; with so many hungry, throwing away food was more than illegal, it was just bad public relations. This is not to say, however, that the rule was universally popular. Every night, after the last paying customers had departed with their grease-stained packages of guilt and greed, the desperate and the simply opportunistic would gather behind closing fast food franchises, eager for the cold pucks of leftover burgers, cheese cementing them into a single texture, buns and meat indiscriminate; for French fries, shrunken into themselves like corpse fingers; and for the crystallized grit of ersatz milkshakes.
For some of the grill and counter workers at such establishments, it was the final burden in a day’s work that left them exhausted, humiliated, and carrying the stink of signature foodstuffs in their hair and on their clothes and skin. The recipients of these handouts were not grateful, for the most part; usually indifferent in their personal hygiene and bathroom habits; and occasionally (though more often in legend than fact) dangerous.
A law, however, is only as good as its details, and so, at one particular mid-western city outlet of a lackluster and struggling Burrito’n’Bun franchise, newly-promoted manager Bob Robertson (he encouraged his staff to call him Bob-two, or Bob-squared, but a nickname can seldom be conferred, and the things they called him behind his back were more likely to reflect his ill-humor or his weight), decided to see if the letter of the legislation could circumvent its intent.
The franchise owner had, at some optimistic point in the past, obtained a 30-quart commercial mixer from an online used-restaurant equipment outlet. Nicknamed “the Beast” for its hulking chrome-steeled weight as much as for the shark-jawed vegetable slicer that hung above the mixing bowl, the device had perhaps represented a dream of heavier customer volume than any of the Burrito’n’Bun stores had ever achieved, and had lurked ominously in a cluttered closet for years, slowly disappearing beneath the detritus of everyday business.
After a particularly difficult closing (which featured, among other horrors, an erstwhile recipient of leftover charity relieving his bowels both loudly and loosely in the parking lot), Bob ordered the Beast disinterred and readied for duty. The following evening, after the drive-through windows were shut and locked and the stuttering microphone on the order board clicked off, he turned to his assistant manager Su Yeung and, with an air of Trumpian command, pointed to the monstrous machine.
“Put the leftovers in there,” he said. “Mix ‘em up.”
“Everything?” she replied with a weary horror. “Even the fried pies?” Su was older than Bob, as delicate as he was gross. In her early thirties, she was the franchise’s most experienced employee, and had an immigrant’s willingness to work hard and follow orders tempered by the decency of someone who has seen real suffering rather than merely what passed for it in Bob’s world. She probably should have been promoted to manager herself, but her superiors had transferred Robertson in instead, with the casual and cautious discrimination typical of failing businesses.
“Every last scrap,” Bob said, with a fanatic’s gleam in his eye. “I think I’ll call it ‘Ambrosia.’”
There was some grumbling about the extra work, of course, but the chore was a new one, and that gave it some little appeal. How many fast-food workers does it take to assemble an industrial-scale mixer-chopper and bring it to life? The answer, of course, is all of them; confused by Bob’s barked commands of inspired leadership and guided by Su Yeung’s quiet nudges toward efficiency. Through the chopper and into the bowl went burgers and burritos, fried pies and stiffened pizza slices, fish sandwiches and fries. Poured atop them were clotted milkshakes in three flavors, milk past its expiration date, and the scrapings from the plastic condiment containers.
When Bob ordered the mixer activated, its motor initially labored against the mess; but the Beast was made for hard work, and before long the contents of the 30-quart bowl were reduced to a chunky gray slurry, brightened by the confetti of onion and relish. The last part of the job was too good to delegate. Bob himself slopped the horrid gruel into waxed-paper milkshake containers, and then he and his crew doled these out (Su Yeung excusing herself from the distasteful task by volunteering to clean the Beast), to the waiting indigent crowd.
Some actually tried to swallow the mess (only one or two finished, most of even the hungriest among them only managing a few gulps); others ranted, though with the weak and resigned anger of those who are long accustomed to losing. At the end of the night the alleyway behind the place was littered with containers and slick with spillage. Cleaning it up was far more work than serving the needy had ever been, but victory brings new strength to tired muscles, and Bob cheered his troops on with assurances that a line had been crossed, and that there would be far fewer waiting for handouts after the next night’s shift.
He was correct. Only a half dozen were there when the alley door opened again. Over the few days that followed, this handful of the truly desperate steadily diminished, but they never vanished entirely.
In virtually every time and culture, there have been tales of creatures that thrive on the leavings of humans, whether given as gift or demanded in tribute. They have been given many names, from the Lambton Worm to the Fear-Gorta to the ubiquitous brownies and boggarts, and in this Midwestern city at this particular point in history, and taking Its tribute from Bob Robertson’s own Burrito’n’Buns, there was only one.
It (gender being a matter of convenience for such creatures, and perhaps not even discernable in the way we define such things) affected the protective coloration of those It found Itself in company with: thrift-store clothing, by any evidence long unwashed; teeth few and yellow-brown; matted hair; and fingernails dirty and either curved into spatulate talons or torn-short rather than clipped. On the fourth night of the Ambrosia campaign, It stood alone when Bob swung open the back door, accepted Its cup without a word (though there was perhaps a glitter of warning sentience in Its watery blue eyes), choked the horrid slurry down, and shambled off.
Bob was furious, but he had the determination of those new to authority, and knew that a preferred nickname was as near, or as far away, as victory. He was determined to triumph.
When the following night’s slurry was mixed, he ordered it spiced up with the contents of three dozen packets of Burrito’n’Buns trademark “Bunburner” taco sauce. This turned the gray mud to an earthy burgundy, and added a sharpness to its greasy musk.
“You don’t need to do that. It’s just mean,” Su Yeung objected, her accented syllables swooping like butterflies.
Bob was not to be denied nor disobeyed.
“You can do what I say, Yeung, or maybe you’ll end up looking for a job in a ‘happy ending’ massage parlor.”
She backed down, but not without muttering, to the delight of her coworkers in range, “I bet you go there. When you leave the girls laugh. ‘Hard to find it,’ they say, ‘he just too fat.’”
The Burrito’n’Bun offered milkshakes in three sizes (Large, Mega, and Ultra). Knowing there would be only one “customer” waiting for the evening’s Ambrosia, Bob filled a Mega cup (approximately the size of a kitchen blender) with the chunky stew, and—aware that his crew was watching his every moment—carried it out the back door with pomp worthy of a sacramental chalice.
The creature was waiting, silently as always, huddled in Its rags and aromas. It took the container with two hands and raised it to the ruin of Its mouth. Bob stepped back; both to spare himself the stink and to put distance between them should the beggar become angry when the spicy brew bit.
Instead, though, It tipped the cup back, skinny neck convulsing rhythmically as it swallowed. It drained the cup without pausing, crumbled it and let it fall to the pavement, and shuffled off without uttering a sound. From within the door at Bob’s back came a collective gasp.
A glare from the manager sent the crew back to their day’s-end cleanup. Bob kicked the empty container into the darkness that had closed behind his adversary and waddled back inside, still far from a beaten man.
Where spice didn’t work, he theorized, salt might. Before the next tub of Ambrosia was whipped to its final consistency, Bob pulled a 5-pound industrial-sized tub of cooking salt from its shelf and poured until a white volcano rose in the middle of the bowl of gray slush. With a flick of its switch, the Beast ground mightily against this new opponent, and in seconds the mixture showed no sign of its recent violation.
Bob glared at his assembled staffers as if daring one of them to express any reservations about the cruelty of this ploy or, worse yet, doubts about its success. Su Yeung pointedly showed him her back, deliberately busying herself with wiping down counters. He slopped the brew (which, as its level dropped, could be seen to have scoured the inside of the Beast’s stainless steel mixing bowl to a raw shininess) into a Mega cup, large enough to serve as a waste basket in a seldom used room.
When he toed open the back door, he initially thought (with a mixture of triumph and disappointment) that the constant mendicant wasn’t there. In moments, though, Bob’s eyes accustomed themselves to the gathering dark, and he was able to see his nemesis, leaning against the Dumpster like something carelessly discarded there. It stood as the manager faced It, and held out Its hands, with all of the humbleness of a monarch accepting tribute.
Bob handed the Mega cup over, barely able to conceal his anticipation. His excitement was short lived, however, and he stared with something akin to horror as the offering was received, lifted to lips, and once again drained in a single, breath-defying series of swallows. Dropping the cup (its hollow, empty rattle against the parking lot underlining the enormity of the consumption), the creature met Bob’s eyes with Its own before once again slouching into the surrounding night. The manager shuddered despite himself at that contact, and at the hint of rising enmity he perceived in that brief glance.
And then, behind him, from the open doorway and the windows looking out upon the scene of his defeat, his crew began to applaud.
Bob picked up the discarded cup, crumpled it in his hands, and flung it at their noise. It fell short of the building, adding to his humiliation, and he kicked it aside as he stumbled in, stiff-legged with anger.
“You make sure they finish up here, Yeung,” He spoke directly to his assistant manager, but his staff quailed collectively at his voice, full of the terrible threat of a weak man wielding small authority. “And make sure they’re all here on time for once. Tomorrow is going to be a big day.”
Su Yeung nodded, used to his tirades, and set the crew to work, her voice sharp despite her cooing, vowel-rich accent. They were silent and busy as Bob left, locking the door behind him.
In testimony to their fear (or Yeung’s powers of motivation) everyone was already in place when the manager arrived in the morning. He was unaccountably cheery, too, and maintained his façade of bonhomie through the evening rush. There was a sense of imminent catastrophe surrounding his joviality, so rare at the best of times and unlikelier still given the prior evening’s defeat, which grated on Su’s nerves and caused her to be unusually hard on the others as the day wound down.
Acting out of habit, now, they loaded the leftovers into the Beast and whipped them together. When this was done, everyone lingered in place, waiting. It was Su Yeung who finally broke the silence.
“You want something else in it tonight, Bob?” She asked.
He smiled, crossing his arms and rubbing his hands over his meaty biceps.
“Naw,” he said. “Good job you guys. Why don’t you all bail a little early? I can take it from here.
Su hesitated, perhaps sensing the coming disaster and its risks to human life and job security.
“You sure, Bob? I don’t mind staying to help.”
“I got this,” he answered. “I totally got this. You’ll find out all about it in the morning.”
They left, of course, for the most part hurriedly before he could change his mind. Only Yeung hesitated at the door before deciding that repeating her question might constitute insubordination.
When he was sure they were gone, Bob went back to the storage closet that had once been home to the Beast and, after an eager shuffle through the contents of its shelves, uncovered the ingredient he’d been looking for.
He poured the entire bottle of drain cleaner into the mixer’s bowl. Threw the switch, and stepped back involuntarily as the combination began to foam and sputter, burping out fumes that burned the nostril and watered the eye. When it had settled enough to allow him to move closer, Bob pulled the mixing bowl from the Beast’s turntable and, using three fingers of one hand to turn the knob and his knee to pry the door open, carried the burden into the darkness of the back alley.
He set the offering down and backed away. Sure enough, within seconds a shamble separated Itself from the mottled darkness and moved toward the offering, picking the ungainly container up easily. Bob watched, holding in an explosive mixture of horror and glee, as his enemy lifted the thing to Its mouth, prepared to sip, and stopped, letting the full bowl drop with a muted, heavy, slopping clang.
“Yes!” Bob whispered, and then continued, louder. “Yes! I win. You lose! Maybe you want to try the chicken place two blocks down, huh?”
He turned, prepared to seal his triumph with arrogance. Bob was briefly aware of something happening behind him, of space changing to accommodate a different and far larger shape. He felt the claws on his shoulder and looked back. He was fortunate enough to faint before he felt the teeth.
When Su Yeung showed up the following morning (reliably twenty minutes early), she found the place scrubbed clean from top to bottom. Every worn Formica counter glistened; the long-blackened grill gleamed. Even the Beast sat proudly in the center of the kitchen; bowl and blades buffed to pristine cleanliness.
At first she assumed that it was Bob’s work; some late night celebration of victory or washing away of defeat. He hadn’t shown up by the time the rest of the crew arrived, however. By the end of the day she considered it her duty to call the district supervisor for instructions. He, with little time for such trivialities, wearily promoted her to manager.
She informed the crew immediately, taking off her apron as she did so (and showing a flair for appropriate drama).
“First job,” she said, letting them follow her dark eyes to the Beast, “is put that thing away.”
As they set to work, Su slipped out the back door. The alleyway behind the franchise was as spotless as it was inside. She was characteristically thorough, though, and eventually found what she was looking for. It had dried and shrunk in the day’s air, its former plump, wet redness reduced to a shriveled brown thing the size of a mango, but she knew what it was. Su Yeung considered the alternatives, and finally, after glancing around to make sure she was alone, wrapped the heart in her discarded apron and tossed it unceremoniously into the dumper.
“Poor Bob-two,” she muttered, all the prayer that he would get. “At least you finally found something It wouldn’t eat.”
That night the day’s remainders were distributed as before. There was only one beneficiary waiting, but the numbers grew steadily and, by the end of the week, like any ecosystem returning to balance, had reached the precise level needed to efficiently consume every leftover Burrito’n’Bun had to offer.
Bruce Woods is a professional writer/editor with more than 30 years in magazine publishing, having worked as editor of Mother Earth News and Alaska Magazine, among others, and having published both nonfiction and poetry books. Prairie Schooner magazine featured his work in its “Writing from Alaska” issue. His Birdhouse Book, brought out by Sterling/Lark, is still in print and has sold more than 100,000 copies.