Late Lunch

Late Lunch

Clinton Hatch could have eaten his spare tire by the time he pulled off the highway. He’d been stretching that extraterrestrial gap between Fort Stockton and Sonora where the speed limit was the funniest thing around, and the emptiness had migrated to his belly. He turned up the volume on the static to drown it out.

Shoehorned into an F-150, Hatch was wet leather with droopy eyelids. He was also on a mission — the last of the great country reporters, staring out into a blackened highway that was too metaphorical for comfort, mentally writing the first paragraphs of a piece on the failed promise of West Texas wineries. He probably wouldn’t have a job before he finished writing it. The industry he’d fallen in love with as a young rambler was fading out of existence, and he drove on.

Bertie’s Roadside was a heap with a warm griddle and a broken neon light, but you’d have to go all the way to Junction to get a better burger. Hatch stepped out of his truck in the parking lot and let his bones settle before opening a door whose high-pitched creak acted as the welcome bell. If you’ve seen one, you’ve seen all you want — these linoleum palaces who specialize in yesterday’s coffee. Hatch spun a seat at the counter, and a beleaguered woman with “Jacky” on her name tag yawned hello. She looked like every girl from this neck of the desert. Pear-shaped with a high fructose personality, blonde hair dirty enough to be brunette and two decades of wrinkles she hadn’t lived through yet.

“What’re ya gettin’?”

Hatch followed the oldest rule of the road and ordered what most other stragglers seemed to have in front of them. He’d had his breakfast at midnight, and a 4am chicken fried steak would hit the spare tire spot.

“It’s not boot straps, if yer worried about that,” Jacky snotted before pouring him a cup of coffee he hadn’t ordered and padding toward the other end of the counter.

Hatch only had time to tip his hat to a county patrolman before his food arrived. It was a concerning bit of hospitality, but if you have enough gravy, even roadkill can taste good. He grabbed his knife and fork.

“Now hold on there, young fella,” the patrolman laughed. “You look awfully like you’re about to eat that steak.”

Puzzled, Hatch cocked his head and caught the man’s eyes. “I was.”

“You do, and you know I’ll have to take you in.”

“You’ll what?”

“It’s the tail end of a shift that’s already gone shit side up, so you’ll only make me irritated.”

“You’re gonna arrest me for eating?”

“Don’t sass me, boy.”

The entire diner had taken notice, and for the first time, Hatch had taken his first true look at them. All those drivers and off-duties hadn’t touched full plates of chicken fried steak and baked potatoes and hamburgers with french fries at all. Soups sat stagnant, eggs had gone even more rubbery. Everyone sat like background extras in a bad movie, miming in case the cameras caught them. Hatch turned back to the officer.

“Are you telling me that it’s illegal to eat chicken fried steak here?”

“Course not. That’d be loony tunes.”

“So,” Hatch swallowed. “I can eat it?”

“Hell no. Christ, son.”

“I’m afraid I don’t understand.”

“You can order it, she can cook it, and she can slop it down in front of you.”

“But I can’t eat it?”

“Technically you can.”

“So what’s the problem?”

“It’s legal to have chicken fried steak, but not from this particular establishment.”

“Why not?”

“This restaurant doesn’t meet the requirements for cooking that kind of dish vis a vis the new 304 subsection article of the state’s regulations. Soup, maybe, but I’d have to check.”

“No soup either!” shouted a disgruntled man with a cold bowl of it in front of him.

“There, you see? No soup either.” said the officer.

Hatch let out a big laugh. This early in the morning, he was numb as the butt of the joke, but he could appreciate a small town prank.

“You’re pulling at me,” he said, slapping the officer on the shoulder, who immediately recoiled.

“No, sir, I am not, and I’ll thank you to keep your hands off me.”

Had it been daytime, or had he had a full stomach or enough sleep, Hatch probably would have cowered. As it stood, bewilderment forced bravery on him.

“Ridiculous,” Hatch spat. He picked up his knife and fork, defiantly cutting a hunk off of what Jacky had promised wasn’t boot straps. The officer stood up, dropping his right hand into a dangerous position.

“Don’t do what I think you’re about to do, boy.”

Hatch stabbed the grisly meat and brought it up to his mouth.

“Just step away from the steak, son. We don’t want any trouble here. Take a deep breath and relax.”

Hatch stared steely into the eyes of the lawman, holding his bite near the edge of his lip. You could have heard a dirty toothpick hit the floor. Nobody moved for another hundred seconds.

“Aw, criminey!” Hatch said, slamming his fork back down on the plate. “This is absurd. I didn’t even want chicken fried steak in the first place.”

“Then why’dya order it?” Jacky gum-smacked in.

“Everyone else seemed to be happy with theirs. I’ve never been here,” Hatch said, exhausted. “Can I order something else?”

“Sure, but you’re gonna pay for that chicken fried, too.”

“When I can’t even eat it? No deal.”

“We all paid!” someone shouted from the crowd.

“Son, I thought you were smart just a second ago. You can’t just order food like that and not pay,” said the officer.

“There shouldda been a sign saying I couldn’t eat the food I was ordering!”

Hatch, drawn out by intense hunger and the endless night he’d driven through, was on fire. The officer pulled his taser.

“Son, everybody knows about the new restrictions. It’s been all over the radio.”

“The only three stations I’ve gotten for a week are Tejano, gospel and staticky gospel! Since when is it illegal to eat a goddamned chicken fried steak in the United States of America?!”

“Like I said, it isn’t. But if you do it, I’ll arrest you.”

Hatch saw long term reason through the greasy haze of short term satisfaction. He took a breath and felt himself starting to come down the mountain. He was still in the spotlight, though, and it burned.

“Okay, let me ask you this. Is there somewhere nearby where I can order a chicken fried steak, or any food of any kind, and actually eat it without being hauled off to the drunk tank?”

The officer pocketed his taser and held his hands up, recognizing the effort at peace. He scrunched a bulbous nose in thought.

“Closest I can think,” an old timer offered from the back, “is Austin.”

“That’s another 200 miles from here!” Hatch shouted before catching his temper. “I’m good. I’m fine. Sorry. There’s nothing closer?”

“Well, I wish I could help you more, son. I really do,” said the officer, “but that’s the hard reality of it, ain’t it? The people have spoken. You can eat chicken fried steak, but it’s got to be made the right away according to the law.”

“How many places in Texas can I get a chicken fried steak and eat it after this new regulation?”

The entire crowd seemed to act as a singular brain. Murmurs and odd digits floated out and were politely shoved aside, but the consensus seemed to land near four or five.

Hatch was at a loss. His hunger had fallen into his shoes. Anger melted into madness.

“What if I take it to go?” he offered, feeling emboldened by a quiet room that seemed, somehow, to understand what he was going through.

“Do you plan on eating it? In your car or otherwise?” the officer asked.

Hatch thought a moment.

“No, sir.”

“Alright then.”

Satisfied, Hatch let out his last ounce of his air, and the patrons seemed to float back to their own worlds. Jacky was flying in with a Styrofoam container.

Floating on compromise, Hatch scrunched to sit down in his seat again, but miscalculated and nudged the plate right off the counter, sending fries, the steak and an industrial amount of gravy to the floor.

Not yet uncoiled, the officer flinched his taser back out with a flurry and motioned to subdue Hatch, but slipped on a glob of gravy and fell to the ground, re-aggravating an old, high school football injury. The crowd instantly reformed. Jacky smacked her gum.

Hatch recognized his chance.

With the officer’s groans like a siren, he grabbed a half-full basket of saltines and booked it to his truck, spinning out in the parking lot like white heat and aiming for Austin.

Copyright retained by author. Reproduction or reuse of this work of fiction is not permissible unless approved by author.