Jasper’s memory of certain ads from his childhood would remain slick as wet paint in his mind until he died. He’d always watched them splayed out too close to the screen, his socks touching the wooden base of the TV.
There was one commercial with a line of cartoon shrimp doing a legless cancan. A piratical voice-over: Arr! A treasure with kick. The McPrawnster, test-marketed briefly in select Canadian cities, where its failure to catch on assured it never saw daylight anywhere else. But the final shot lodged in the back of his brain: a vista of thick, blind prawns on wet lettuce with hot sauce. The prawns curled fetally between the buns, looking as if they had the chewiness of inner tubes. They made him think of floating on such tubes in the lake, in the summer, for hours, until your skin began to peel off.
He worked the drive-thru window in his hometown—graveyard shift. At twenty-five he was too old for it, but the work wasn’t bad. Sometimes interesting. Hold-ups, fights, burns from the deep fryer, people facedown on tables. New graffiti all the time:
Heyyy sleeping dogss
I like big butts
Jordanna why don’t you love me?
Jordanna, whoever she was, could love none of this. The McDonald’s had been there for decades, built in sunnier days, but it couldn’t last, just up the highway from where Homeless City had sprouted under the bridge over the lake. The oubliette-like municipal bathrooms, the workplace of most of the local dealers, were a block over. The RCMP station was too small, and too far away. It was a surprise that HQ allowed this franchise to carry on, though Jasper continued to work there until 3 a.m. five nights a week, scrubbing ballpoint screeds and raptures from the men’s room walls when it was quiet.
Midnight on a slow Tuesday. He’d already mopped and done cup and lid inventory, and yelled to the duty manager that he was leaving the pickup window for his break. She yelled back: Got it, Jasp! Her cheerfulness was of the kind that feels like a plastic bag over your head. Sometimes she called him Jazzy, and snapped her fingers, which caused a breathless stab under his sternum.
Jasper maintained his own temper to a degree, part of the job, but he kept his distance from her. With his earpiece still on, he headed for the back, his breastbone beginning its ache. When a broken voice cracked into his head, his happiness at the prospect of fifteen minutes’ peace fell down into his sore feet. Hello? Hello?
The customer sounded far away, uncertain, as if she’d never used a drive-thru before.
Jasper clicked out his response before she could begin a boozy lament, as so many did: Welcome to McDonald’s, what can I get for you tonight?
Now the voice sharpened, but was still hesitant over the air: I want two of those—those ones with the prawns?
Sorry, we don’t have prawns. Can I get you something else?
She sounded terrifically sad, if not in a drugged slough of despond. Some kids whooped in the distance, fire-setting whoops. She whispered, McPrawnsters. Why did they take them away? What happened to them?
The commercial from years before burst forth in his mind. Arr! He remembered it now, the McPrawnster, yeah. She wasn’t wrong. But that had been so long ago. Why get into it at the drive-thru? He only said, The menu changes, ma’am. We do have some new items, if you take a look at the board.
What’s your name?
My name is Jasper. What can I get for you tonight?
What—can I have?
Anything you want, ma’am.
By now Jasper had closed his eyes. He was hungry. He’d forgotten to eat lunch. The golden scent of fries blew out of the kitchen vent and back in the window. A sudden gush of saliva flooded his mouth, and he nearly choked.
The woman’s sigh blew into his ear. She said, Was it the sandwich’s name, I wonder? Maybe it wasn’t elegant enough.
Jasper wiped his lips. He said, Not enough people come here for the elegance.
She laughed. Her laughter was lower pitched than he would have expected. You could hear age in it—maybe forty, fifty. Her voice had warmed. She said, What’s French for prawn?
Jasper had failed senior French after displaying an initial scholarly promise, but he said with his old certainty, le poisson.
He said, Listen, I could make you a milkshake. Special blend. All three flavours. Not everybody gets those.
His earpiece was silent. The commercial was still dancing somewhere on the edge of his brain. He remembered some of the more exotic French animals: le crapaud, le requin, le porc-épic. Idly, he pictured each of these cooked. He coughed into the microphone and said, Sorry. There was no laugh, no response, only a long thin cry from one of the arsonists. He said, Ma’am, are you okay?
When he looked up at the drive-thru screen, the car was still out there at the order point. It was a long vehicle, one of those 1970s car-truck hybrids that noses around slow as a boat. He could see, in black and white, elbows and a long-haired head leaning out the driver’s window, searching the air. Then her voice, reduced to staticky quiet again, crept back into his ear: I only want things that are gone. Her engine roared, she pulled ahead. He watched the empty car drive past the window.
He never forgot it—the hair rising on the back of his neck, his knees stiffening. He didn’t tell the happy manager or anyone else. He’d gone out in the dark, and spent his break jogging up the highway a few blocks and losing his breath, but he saw only lines of tail lights. Impossible to say if any belonged to the long car. Back in the drive-thru lane, he found only a needle, a straw, and an American dime. His guts sank. The weight of his disappointment, both for himself and the woman, was bewildering. He put the dime in his uniform’s pants pocket: its thin solidity made it seem like a symbol of truth.
The restaurant finally shut down a week later, when a dumpster fire set the rear wall ablaze and nearly killed a firefighter when a roof truss came down on his back. Straight afterwards, as if triggered by the burning, the birds started coming back for spring.
Jasper spent his first unemployed days walking around downtown. He breathed shallowly, keeping his eye out for long classic cars. In City Park, he stared at the lake, flipping the dime around in one hand and trying to fix his eyes, which felt broken. Lady, lady.
He’d been seeing a couple of girls pretty regularly, and now their voices began to grate on him. He’d wake in the middle of the night with one of them, Eleni, asleep on his arm and yank it away. She’d mumble What what, and it would sound grossly stupid, as if she were trying to hack up a jawbreaker. One night he told her to go home, and she stared at him, then marched off like an angry sleepwalker, wild-headed and wrapped in his blanket. Another night, while he and Megan were on the couch watching some old show and they were close to drunk, he asked her to say, “I want two McPrawnsters.” But she only burst out laughing with her loud high ha-ha-ha, and then he told her to go home, too.
Alone in the basement suite, he recalled the vanished woman’s voice. I only want things that are gone. Was she a ghost from McDonald’s past, trying to tell him something? She hadn’t sounded dead, or even all that old. Tremulous and distant, but also alive. The dime was from 1983. He made Siri say a bunch of dumb things on his phone, and strained to hear sexy actresses in his mind, or even the voices of Eleni or Megan, but he could conjure nothing. Jasper lay under his sheet feeling like a bad server, a bad human, a bad man. He hadn’t helped the woman. He’d provided her with nothing. He’d made her disappear.
He had to get back to some kind of work. He’d had a few occupations over the years, nothing lasting: waterslide concession stand, corner store, pizza delivery, door-to-door knife sales. He had no further fast-food plans, and had never actually cared that much about food. It drove Eleni and Megan crazy; both were always cooking him special dinners, rubbing his concave stomach like a fetish, trying to make something more of him.
But now he was hungry all the time. He thought about prawns. How big do prawns get? Look it up: jumbo, king, colossal, supercolossal. The ones harvested off the West Coast here were moderately sized, he learned, which seemed about right. He also looked up the correct French word, which turned out to be crevette. And he found a YouTube video of the old ad from his youth. The quality was faded, lo-fi, definitely Canadian. The pirate accent was violent. Arr. The woman was right; the sandwich should have had a better chance. He’d never even eaten one when they were available. Now he wished to God he had. He had started out well enough: a fast runner, a quick reader, a member of the Student Justice Team throughout elementary school. But so much was lost. He’d been on the wrong path. Wrong, wrong, wrong all his life.
Everywhere, he looked for her, though what did she look like? Long of hair and car. Whatever she was, she’d struck a match in him. He was full of desire to make it up to her, to make something of himself. And to make real food. That was the way. Maybe it would bring her back, like a sleek little mouse with something to tell him. He started thinking of the lost guest as Jordanna. Why don’t you love me?
The dime, her dime, told him to go to America. He applied to a famous cooking school in New York, providing a faked college transcript and a pumped-up resumé—sous-chef, food service administrator—and when he got in, he knew it was right. He felt his spine straightening out of its leftover teenage hunch. On the flight there, he ate pretzels, licking the salt from his fingers and picking the detritus from his sweater, and stared at the bank of lilac cloud out the window, through which he would sink to alight upon his destiny.
The school buildings were stone and beam-and-plaster, built to look like some walled Renaissance European city never touched by war or famine. The interiors swished with smells. In his 101 class, there were a couple of Nepalese sisters, about five guys from Taiwan, and two other Canadians. When they went around the class introducing themselves, one talked earnestly about home being like a stir-fry, unlike the American fondue pot. The other one spoke: I think you mean melting pot? The first agreed, Oh right, and nothing more was said. Jasper ignored them. He felt himself one with the energetic American majority of the room, part of the soup, or bouillon, or whatever it was, in whatever kind of pot. Though she, his woman, wasn’t in it.
He learned fast, feeling all his youthful light bulbs come back on, as if long fingers had flipped a switch. Her fingers. He kept an eye out for her car in the parking lots, and rubbed her dime constantly, asking for her help and intervention. Its colour matched the bright stainless steel everywhere. It worked. It was a sandwiching of his past and his future, a sign of his potential, a warning not to let it disappear, too. He knew he was becoming a stand-out with the instructors. He even nailed mille feuille his first try. You’re really coming along, said the pastry teacher with the swinging gait and the warm breath, and he was.
He passed Pastries, Breads, Sauces, Red Meats. The semester’s final project was to create a dish of one’s own. He wanted his to be something surprising, a little retro, but lasting—something with his name on it. Or hers, if he only knew what it really was. Prawns Jordanna. No, Crevettes Jordanna. He took a 5 train up to a fish market in the Bronx to get the biggest and freshest prawns. The seller with supercolossals in his icy bucket smelled not like the ocean, but like inland water, shyer, more like basement. Jasper was pleasantly reminded of going out on the lake in his grandpa’s tin boat as a kid at home, clubbing little kokanee salmon on the seat once they were reeled in. Fish scales shining like wet snow on his fingers.
The man held out the newspaper-wrapped parcel, locking his hairy brows together. Twenty-two dollars. Cash only.
Jasper poked around in his wallet. He had sixteen bucks in bills. There was a dollar thirty in change in his jacket pockets. I’m here all day, the man said.
Feeling foreign, Jasper dug deeper into his jeans until he had pulled out another palmful of change. He handed it over. The man gave a cool little bow.
On the subway and the bus home, the subtle lake scent of the cold package rose like a secret around him. He rocked sleepily. He thought of the time he’d hooked a kokanee’s eye and reeled it in, but the fish had escaped. He’d seen the one-eyed creature swim past his line later, the socket trailing a red thread through the clear green water. It was possible not to lose everything.
But he did. Back in his dorm, he realized he’d given the prawn man the dime, her dime. He fumbled through his bag and clothes, held a dime up to the light, but it was the wrong year, and blackened with ink. Its scratched emblem of a torch and leaves taunted him. Canadian coins all featured potential food: a beaver, a caribou, a loon. Even the ship depicted on the dime was a cod-fishing boat. Famous for its speed, but eventually wrecked off Haiti, carrying bananas, he remembered from school. Of course he remembered. It was all wrecked.
Crevettes jordanna got a C-plus, and the plus was out of pity for the tears in Jasper’s left eye when the instructor tasted the dish and set down her fork in a hurry to cough. The C was probably a pity grade, too. The prawns were alarmingly big, he’d left an antenna on one, the sauce he’d invented was furry on the tongue and had a long afterburn. He might as well have thrown it all into a hot dog bun and called it a McPrawnster 2. Or Too. Another failure.
He threw it into the dumpster outside. He looked for her in its face, as believers search for the profile of Jesus in toast, but in the dumpster there was only sloppy ruin. One of the Nepalese girls, Nina, tapped him on the shoulder with a spoon. She was holding a Tupperware dish of something that smelled gloriously sweet and coconutty. The wind lifted her hair, a fly circled. Do you want to eat? No. I don’t want that. Then she offered to help him clean up, but it was the wrong help.
At home the McDonalds building remained in its bad neighbourhood off the bridge, as if no one had the energy to tear down the standing remains. He stepped in through the collapsed rear wall, close to where the drive-thru had been. Furtive things, human or otherwise, rattled away when his flashlight hit the corners. Much of the place was blackened and still stinking. It breathed a wintry air. Wires hung out of the ceiling and the counters, where lights and tills had been ripped away.
Here were the remains of his youth and promise. Standing behind the old fry station, shaking the remaining wire basket, he felt how little distance he’d travelled. Something about this place, maybe this whole country, where McPrawnsters and people were born to die. He threw the basket against a support post, where it bounced metallically. Time wasn’t a line and it wasn’t elastic, stretching out infinitely ahead of you. It was a curled-up thing. A prawn in cold water, waiting for its head to be snapped off.
Around the drive-thru window’s edges, the remaining glass was a jagged lace. He put his head out carefully into the dark. His back hurt. Ducks muttered in the creek across the lane, something shattered down the block. He found he was hungry, though there was no food scent around anymore. He thought about old girlfriends, now gone, numbers deleted from his phone as if he’d never had any. He thought about his grandfather, dead eight years, a friend to wasps, who would hang a dead carp in a tree away from camping spots, just for the insects to gorge on. It never stopped them coming for the human dinner, though.
Jasper was about to cry to the moon when he heard the engine. The car was at the side of the building. He could see its long headlight beams cutting the shadow. He swung out his flashlight toward it and was immediately blinded by the glare from the driver’s side windows. He shielded his eyes. Saint of lost food, goddess of destruction, I would sell myself for you. Give me your order.
This originally appeared in the May 2017 issue.