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HUGEPOP!!!Bedtime StoriesOne Man's WorldThe Mispronouncer

Great, Plain

                It was the middle of the beginning of late summer. The text came in just as Ty was about to go to bed. Inside of 15 minutes, he was on his motorcycle and headed through the night to Dalcette, a town he’d never been to, a town he’d never heard of before he met Colleen on the last night of the cruise, both of them walking out of the same magic show, offended by the same joke, their eyes rolling toward each other, meeting, signaling immediate attraction. Colleen liked Ty’s frame, wide but compact, the sturdiness it conveyed, like if you were looking for someone to shove, someone who would reward that shove with a satisfying result, a stumble, a stagger, a fall, you’d probably choose someone else, that was how Colleen put it. Ty liked the dimensions of Colleen’s facial features, how they were all nonstandard but perfectly complemented each other, and he told her that he assumed she was the best looking woman in her hometown before he found out how small it was. They had stayed up all night talking, and when the ship docked, they exchanged phone numbers. They had texted a lot in the six months since the cruise, but had not seen each other despite living only a few hours apart.

               But the text – it was from Colleen – had come in just as Ty was about to go to bed, and even though he had work in the morning, he was on his motorcycle inside of 15 minutes and headed through the night to Dalcette, the town where Colleen lived, and the town where she now waited for Ty’s embrace. That’s what the text had said: “I’m waiting for your embrace.” That wasn’t how Colleen had talked on the cruise ship, but it was consistent with how she texted sometimes when she was in certain states of mind, moods of vulnerability and exposure. When Ty had texted back that he was on his way, there had been no back-pedaling from Colleen, no minimizing of her need, no insistence that Ty get a good night’s sleep before a long day on the construction site. “I’ll watch for you from my window,” she had texted, leaving the statement unpunctuated.

               For three hours and some-odd minutes, Ty did nothing but drive, following the route he had memorized before leaving the house so he wouldn’t have to stop to check his phone or, even worse, try to check it while driving, maintaining control of the handlebars with one mere human hand.

As he drove, Ty felt propelled not by the power of a combustion engine, but by the nobility of his purpose. He felt that, for once, his desires were not neutral, not contrary to good, but aligned with good. But his mission was not to prove his goodness; it was good in itself. He did not worry about the quality of the embrace he had set out to deliver, did not stress about technique. Each insect that splatted against the clear plastic face shield of his helmet was, Ty knew, a tyrant, a terrorist, an abuser. When he arrived in Dalcette in the early morning hours, the town blurred past, Ty did not notice its characteristics; he noted it only as the final landmark within which lay his destination. The directions to Colleen’s home had grown fuzzy during his journey, but Ty felt her town funneling him toward her, and he pulled to a stop in her driveway at 3:36 a.m. And there she was in the front window, watching for him as she had said she would.

Ty went inside and embraced Colleen for nearly 20 minutes, standing in the same window from which she’d watched for him. After so long on his bike, standing felt good. They spoke very little, and what they said meant less. Then, purpose fulfilled, Ty said good night and returned to his motorcycle. He was glad that Colleen did not thank him for coming. As he drove away from her house, Ty saw that all the lights were off, and he could sense Colleen’s peaceful slumber behind her bedroom blinds.

All recognition of which way he had come through the Dalcette streets to find Colleen’s house fled Ty’s mind, chased away by the sense that he had just participated in something transcendent, one of those rare moments capable of sustaining a person through excruciating stretches of hardship, a moment the force of which Ty knew he would never be able to articulate, but which he also knew would nestle beneath his heart and radiate satisfaction whenever he concentrated on it throughout the remainder of his life. It would serve as permanent repudiation of triviality, of senselessness, of creeping waste, of those inevitable feelings that living is mostly the squandering of life. If every choice that Ty had made had conspired to bring him to tonight, then how could he regret any of them, how could he disdain even a single instant of his being’s winding course? And if there was one night like tonight, then that allowed for the possibility of more, that allowed for the possibility of days like tonight, too, and no hard limit to them, either, why shouldn’t they become, if not common, then frequent? Now that he knew they were out there for the taking, why couldn’t Ty search them out, why shouldn’t he become more adept at identifying the signs that would lead him to their lairs, expertly tracking them through a landscape built to obscure them, circumventing every diversion, vaulting every pitfall?

It occurred to Ty that he was hungry. If he made good time getting home – and why wouldn’t he? – then he figured he had enough time to grab something to eat, and while he wasn’t sure a town the size of Dalcette would have a 24-hour restaurant, he decided, having found himself upon its main street – possibly even named Main St., although he wasn’t sure – that he would keep his eyes open on the way to the city limits and, if he saw something open, he would stop for a quick bite.

And there, after a short minute of vigilant cruising, was Newsworthy Burger, wide open for business.


There was only one other customer inside the restaurant, a woman in a corner booth watching something on her phone with the remnants of her all-but-finished meal spread out across the table in all directions. Behind the counter, an employee stood waiting for Ty at the register, a non-smile fixed on her face. She had dark, wavy hair that stopped abruptly at the middle of her neck. Her black-and-red uniform shirt did not fit, though it was hard to say how. Perhaps it had not been tailored to fit anyone. Her nametag read “Vanessa.” From within the depths of the kitchen beyond her, Ty heard sounds more industrial than culinary and occasional bouts of mismatched chuckling from two differing sources.

“Let me know when you’re ready to order,” said Vanessa. She had her hands in her pants pockets. Her lips didn’t part by much as she spoke and her voice stayed close to her mouth. It was as if she were trying not to wake the majority of the Dalcette population as they slept their ways along their separate paths toward their morning alarms.

Ty surveyed the menu above the counter. He also noted two cardboard standees flanking the counter. Newsworthy Burger seemed intent on hyping something called the “Great Plains Burger.” There were no pictures of the Great Plains Burger on any of the signage, but the name aroused Ty’s curiosity. “Why is it called the ‘Great Plains Burger?’” he asked.

               “It’s named after the Great Plains,” said Vanessa.

               “But why is it called that?” asked Ty.

               “In honor of the Great Plains,” said Vanessa.

               Ty laughed, feeling magnanimous, viewing this whole scene from a great height. “But what’s on the burger?” he asked. “That’s all I’m asking.”

               “Let me go ask,” said Vanessa.

               “Oh, uh, if it’s going to be a problem, it’s not a big deal,” said Ty.

               “It won’t be that much of a problem,” said Vanessa, and she turned and headed back into the kitchen. As she walked away, Ty noticed that Vanessa’s shoelaces were so long that, even though they were double-knotted, she trod upon the loops. Then, from somewhere among the cookers, fryers, and warmers, Ty heard murmuring voices, the clack of keyboard use, the whirr of a dated printer, and Vanessa was back with a sheet of paper in hand which she extended to Ty. “There,” she said. “That’s everything that’s on it.”

               Ty expected something other than an 8-point font list of ingredients, but that was what he got. He held the paper with both hands and read aloud. “‘Cornmeal dusted bun, beef patty, lettuce, tomato, Great Plains sauce.’ What’s in the Great Plains sauce?”

               He saw Vanessa suppress a sigh. “Let me go ask,” she said.

               “Can’t whoever’s back there just tell me?” asked Ty. “I don’t need it typed.”

               “They’ll only type it,” said Vanessa. “They think it’s funny, but I don’t.” She trekked back into the kitchen, stumbling twice on her shoelace loops.

               Ty reflected on how this interaction would have affected him before taking his place in the realm of the sublime. This glimpse of the level from which he’d risen served only to remind him of the blessing he had so recently received. Already, though, this restaurant felt like a foreign land, an obscure land of frail substance.

               This time, the paper that Vanessa brought to Ty was printed in 6-point font and it read only “corn-based salsa.”

               “Kind of a waste of paper,” said Ty.

               “I know,” said Vanessa. “They think that’s funny too. Wasting paper.”

               “So the idea with the Great Plains Burger is corn?” asked Ty. “Cornmeal on the bun, corn-based salsa inside?”

               “And wheat too, probably,” said Vanessa. “Since that’s in the bun.”

               “Well, I’ll try it,” said Ty. “One Great Plains burger combo. And that’ll be it.”

               The girl nodded, punched a few buttons on the register, took Ty’s credit card, swiped it, returned it to him, and told him his food would be out in a few minutes. Ty thanked her and sat down in the booth closest to the counter. This was already taking a little longer than he would have preferred. He was now above worrying about getting to work exactly on time, but he still preferred not to be too late if he could help it. As he waited for Vanessa to call his name, Ty fiddled with the miniature TV on the table. When he pressed a button he hadn’t realized was the power button, the screen lit up with washed-out amateur footage from within a deep, red canyon. As he watched the camera’s slow-moving, jerky progress along the canyon floor, Ty began to cry very, very gently, the most delicate cry of his life. A symptom, he knew, of his new state. He couldn’t wait to see what food would be like now, he couldn’t wait to sink his teeth into that Great Plains Burger.

               “Ty,” called Vanessa from the counter. “Your food’s ready.” She posed holding the tray bearing Ty’s meal as if he might take her picture and use it on a poster inviting people to apply for a job at Newsworthy Burger.

               “Thank you,” said Ty, taking the tray. “I’m starving.” He returned to his seat and unwrapped his burger. First, he noticed that the burger was large, perhaps 7 inches in diameter. Then he saw that there was no cornmeal dusting the bun. He noticed that the sandwich, while wide, was also thin. Removing the bun, he saw only a beef patty. No lettuce, no tomato, and certainly nothing that could be construed as Great Plains sauce, corn-based salsa or otherwise. He lifted the burger, considered it, and carried it back to the counter.

               “Is there something wrong?” asked Vanessa.

               “Yeah,” said Ty. “I think I got the wrong burger? There’s nothing on this.”

               “Yes,” said Vanessa. “That’s what you ordered.”

               “No, it isn’t,” said Ty. “You showed me the printed list of all the ingredients that are supposed to be on here. Where’s the Great Plains sauce? Where’s the lettuce, the tomato? Why isn’t the bun dusted with cornmeal?”

               “Because those things are on the Great Plains Burger,” said Vanessa.

               “That’s what I ordered,” said Ty.

               “No,” said Vanessa. “You ordered a great, plain burger. And that’s what that is.”

               Ty laughed. It wasn’t a scoff, it was not. “There’s some kind of mix-up here. I’m not sure what’s going on.” He paused. “What’s going on?”

               “You’re asking me?” asked Vanessa.

               “Yes,” said Ty. “Why isn’t there anything on this burger?”

               “It’s plain,” said Vanessa.

               “So after I asked you about the Great Plains Burger,” said Ty. “And after I read the ingredient list. And asked about the Great Plains sauce. And read what that was. After all that, when I ordered the Great Plains Burger, you thought I wanted a regular burger, but served plain. Plain as in nothing on it. Just plain.”

               “I thought that’s what you ordered, yes,” said Vanessa. “That is what you ordered, maybe you’re forgetting.”

               “Why would I say ‘great,’ then?” asked Ty. “Did you think I was specifying the quality of the plain burger that I wanted?”

               “No,” said Vanessa. “That’s what size you wanted.”

               “Size?” asked Ty. He dropped the burger on the counter, which didn’t seem too rude because, with nothing on it, it didn’t – couldn’t – make much of a mess.

               “Yes,” said Vanessa. “We don’t do small, medium, and large here. Not anymore. Now we do fine, good, and great. Great’s the new large.”

               “So you thought I wanted a plain burger of great size,” said Ty.

               “And that’s what that is, yes,” said Vanessa, pointing at the fallen burger on the counter.

               “The terminology,” said Ty, “in this restaurant…it seems designed to create confusion. This can’t be the first time this exact error has happened.”

               “I don’t know,” said Vanessa. “Maybe. So you don’t want that burger?”

               “No,” said Ty. “I want what I ordered.”

               “Well, I gave you that,” said Vanessa.

               “No,” said Ty. “You gave me what you thought I ordered.”

               The conversation lapsed into a silent stalemate. Vanessa stood behind her register and did not appear to care if either of them ever spoke again. Ty felt troubled as the terrain in his lofty territory turned treacherous, he felt the pull of pervasive pettiness. He did not want to say what he was about to say, but he knew that he would. “Will you replace this burger for free?”

               “Sure,” said Vanessa. “What do you want instead?”

               “The Great Plains Burger,” said Ty. “Plains with an ‘S.’ Great Plainsss. Plural.”

               “Got it,” said Vanessa. “Plural.” She punched some buttons on the register, then said, “I canceled out the cost. It’ll be ready in a few minutes.”

               “Thank you,” said Ty. He returned to the booth and returned his attention to the video on the small TV screen. The camera, however, had left the canyon. It now showed the inside of a crummy motel room where everything was installed wrong: light switches inside closets, mislabeled faucet handles, deadbolts that missed their marks. Ty jabbed the power button.

               “Ty,” called Vanessa. “Your food’s ready.” This time the tray rested on the counter. Vanessa stood behind it with her hands crossed behind her back.

               Ty approached as if stumbling down a steep slope in slow motion. Though the food was wrapped, he could already see the problem, he could see his dark destiny. There were two burgers on the tray. They looked to be large, or “great” in the institutional parlance. Ty gripped the edge of the counter to steady himself, to give his hands something non-destructive to do. “Are these burgers plain?” he asked. “Nothing on them?”

               “Both of them,” said Vanessa. “Plural. Just like you asked.”

               Ty’s response came out like smoke reflexively coughed from his lungs. “I did not want two plain burgers! I wanted a single Great Plains Burger! I emphasized the plurality of ‘Plains’ so that you would know I wanted the Great Plains Burger and not a plain burger! Had I wanted two great, plain burgers, I would have pluralized ‘burgers!’”

               “I thought it was one of those special cases,” said Vanessa. “Like ‘attorneys general’ or ‘notaries public’ or ‘poets laureate.’”

               Ty was in free-fall. What was he doing, hours from his home in this maddening fast food restaurant after 4 in the morning on a work night? How could an impulse of any value possibly have compelled him along the route that had led him to this moment? “You thought that ‘Great Plains Burger’ was like ‘poets laureate?’” asked Ty. “That’s what you’re telling me?”

               “It is,” said Vanessa. “I’m pretty sure. ‘Burger’ modifies ‘plains.’ It specifies the type of plain things that you want. You want multiple great-sized plain things. And what kind of great-sized plain-things? The burger kind.”


In the parking lot, standing next to his motorcycle, Ty gulped humid air as if it would fill his empty stomach while he texted Colleen. “I’m waiting for your embrace.” Inside the restaurant, he could see Vanessa behind the register, his two great, plain burgers still on the counter as if he might come crawling back for them, begging repentance. After a minute, when Colleen hadn’t responded, Ty texted a clarification. “I’m still in Dalcette, so it wouldn’t be that far to come embrace me.” After another minute, he texted, “I’m in the Newsworthy Burger parking lot, which is a terrible restaurant, by the way, but yeah, I dunno, just thought you might be cool with coming over here and embracing me since I drove well over 3 hours to embrace you.” And after another minute, he blocked Colleen’s number, climbed onto his bike, and fumed the whole way home. He got to work right on time, though.

Discussion Questions

  • How can the love of a mother for her child exist in the same world as a cassette tape of guided meditation to help you quit biting your fingernails?

  • How can the Grand Tetons exist in the same world as a factory that makes whoopee cushions?

  • How can a centuries-old piece of music which still makes those who hear it weep exist in the same world as a bill from your internet provider where your last name is spelled wrong?