A slate-grey sky hung heavy over the President James K. Polk Memorial rest area on Interstate 64 in southern Indiana. At the fueling station, eighteen wheelers lined up under bright green lights for diesel and windshield wiper fluid from an army of apathetic attendants. A mother carrying a styrofoam coffee cup emerged from the Kwik Mart, pulling the collar of her neon pink and light purple ski jacket tight around her neck with her free hand and hurrying her two children across the broad expanse of cracked tarmac. A grove of oak trees, damp brown and bare of leaves for months now, peaked above the domed roof of the food court. At the far end of the parking lot, a mountain of exhaust-stained snow towered precariously over a red and yellow dumpster belonging to Solid Waste Disposition Incorporated, Akron, OH. A cacophony of colors and commotion.
Frank eased his Kia into a parking spot and surveyed the scene. He was not like the rest of them, hustling to-and-fro on their way to somewhere else, to grandma’s house for Christmas, perhaps, or home after a work trip in Louisville or Wheeling or Pittsburgh. No. For Frank J. Marone, the President James K. Polk Memorial rest area was the destination.
In front of him, a fifty-foot steel pole held aloft the black and red cowboy hat signage of the Arby’s Corporation, the curved lines of the double-peaked crown and round brim glowed a warm red against the cold of the December day.
He picked up his phone, smiled, stuck his thumb up, and snapped a selfie. Below the image, he typed, “It’s been twelve years since I started this journey. At last, I come face to face with my white whale (or is it a cod?).” He sent it off to his forty-eight thousand-plus followers and then scrolled through his timeline. Back to the beginning, to 2009, the Roy Rogers outside of Toms River that still served the Cordon Bleu Gold, discontinued nationally in 2005. That one had been pretty easy. Just a quick jaunt down the Garden State Parkway. There and back in a short afternoon. Number nine on the list: the McSalmon Fritters, which he'd found at a barely functioning McDonalds outside of Homer, Alaska. That one had required more doing, an online fundraiser and a series of puddle jumpers.
It had started as a lark, the quest for obscure and discontinued fast food items. Something to do. To pass the time. Shits and giggles. After he'd crossed number five or six off the list of twenty-five sandwiches and tenders and salad shakers, though, the quest had taken over his life, become his identity.
Frank set the phone back down on the passenger seat and watched it buzz and ding with congratulatory missives. In front of the Arby’s, a man shuffled back and forth and spoke to himself angrily, a burned-to-the-filter cigarette hanging from the corner of his mouth.
Frank was there to meet a man about a sandwich. Gordon Warmbacher, franchisee of sixteen Arby’s restaurants across the upper Midwest and Great Plains, about the legendary Mahalo King Cod Filet, to be precise. The Mahalo King was the last on his list that included the KFC Turkey Tender, the Burger King Ostrich Deluxe, and Taco Bell’s Cool Ranch Gator Taco, served exclusively in Louisiana and the Florida Panhandle. He had dedicated the last twelve years of his life to tracking these items down and reviewing them for his ever-increasing number of social media fans and fast food aficionados.
Of all the items on the list, the Mahalo King Cod Filet had proven to be the most elusive. Introduced by the Arby’s Corporation at select stores in 2006, sales had badly underperformed expectations. Reviews were initially poor. People had mocked the incongruity of a New England fish served Hawaiian style. The pineapple slices that sat atop the deep-fried filet smothered in traditional Hawaiian huli-huli sauce would, if left for even a few minutes, soak through the sesame seed bun, leaving it soggy and difficult to pick up. Sales of the sandwich were discontinued after only four months, but it had become something of a cult favorite, with a small but devoted fan club dedicated to getting it back on the menu.
There had been tips. Whispers and rumors of rogue Arby's restaurants still serving the sandwich. Frank had followed one dead end lead after another for nearly a year and a half and had been on the brink of giving up when he received a cryptic Direct Message from Gordon. It could be arranged, Gordon said, but Frank would need to be discreet. Details needed to be omitted, a certain degree of anonymity required. Gordon had a lot on the line.
Frank opened his car door and walked briskly toward the Arby’s entrance and past the man with the cigarette, who cursed at Frank under his breath. He entered and looked around. It was mid-afternoon, the quiet time between the lunch and dinner rushes. Brown and tan anti-slip tiling covered the floor in front of a recently-modernized counter manned by three maroon-shirted and bored looking employees. A middle-aged man in thick-rimmed glasses and a mustache waved to him from one of the booths lining the far wall. Gordon stood and extended his hand toward Frank as Frank approached. He smiled broadly. Gordon squeezed Frank's hand firmly and shook once, up and down. The two men slid across the brown vinyl seating across the table from one another.
“It’s a real pleasure to meet you,” Gordon said once they had settled in. “I’m a fan of your work. Been reading your blog since… Oh let’s see. Well, at least a couple of years now.” His accent was upper midwestern. Wisconsin. Or Minnesota, perhaps.
“That’s very kind of you to say.”
Gordon had a fair complexion with pink cheeks. His skin was pockmarked, probably from teenage acne. Despite it, he was handsome. His greying hair was well cut and the tailoring of his linen jacket appeared bespoke. He looked more suited to someplace with tablecloths and waiters with extensive knowledge about wines and cheeses. Frank, in his wrinkled tee shirt and unwashed jeans, felt suddenly underdressed.
“I’ve got my staff working up our order now. Two Mahalo Cod Filet sandwiches, side of waffle fries. What sort of pop do you like to drink?”
“Sprite will be fine. Thank you.”
“Of course. I don’t even know why I asked. I should have known.”
“I know you said you would treat me, but really, you don’t need to do that.”
“Please. Don’t mention it. It’s my pleasure.” He called across the mostly empty restaurant. “Two large Sprites, no ice in mine.” One of the women behind the counter nodded.
Gordon turned back to Frank. A silence fell over the booth. After a moment, Frank spoke.
“How do you keep making it? The Mahalo King. It’s been, what, more than a decade since it was discontinued?” A statement in the form of a question, his voice rising slightly on the last syllable of the final word.
Gordon smiled mischievously. “Amazing, isn’t it. Seems like it was only yesterday. I was just starting out with my first Arby’s back then. Up in Toledo. That was a big year for me. I hate to toot my own horn, but I've come a long way since then."
The woman from behind the counter approached tentatively, put the Sprites on the table, and handed each of them a straw. Gordon stabbed the straw through the perforation on the plastic lid, took a long sip, and then cleared his throat.
“When they announced that they were going to stop putting it on the menu, I bought up as much of the huli-huli sauce as I could. I made calls as far as Texas and California. Got the stuff FedExed to me overnight shipping. Nobody understood why I wanted this stuff. The Mahalo King never sold very well, as I'm sure you know. They were happy for me to take the stuff off their hands." He chuckled. "I’ve still got a few thousand servings left in my warehouse over in Sioux City. The rest I just sort of pull together on my own. The cod and pineapples. Those I get from the grocery store like anyone else would. Of course, the ingredients aren’t exactly the same as they would be if they came through the normal distribution channels, but I think we've done an admirable job recreating it.”
Gordon took another sip of Sprite before continuing.
“What can I say? I just love this sandwich. I couldn’t let it go. Of course, corporate doesn’t approve of me serving it.” He lowered his voice to a whisper. “Which is why I have to be so secretive. It’s a violation of policy. They could take away my franchise license if they find out I’m still serving it off menu.” Gordon winked theatrically.
Frank nodded. “I appreciate that. And don’t worry. I’m being very careful not to give away any specifics.”
Gordon looked around the restaurant. He took his glasses off, fogged them with his breath, pulled a cloth from his pants pockets, wiped the lenses clean. “Ah, here they come now.”
A different server, a young man in an Arby’s baseball cap walked toward them carrying a brown plastic tray. He lowered it onto the table and then turned and walked briskly away.
“Voila,” Gordon said with a flourish of his hand. “I give you the Mahalo King.” He picked up the cardboard basket that contained the sandwich and placed it in front of Frank. “There’s some extra huli-huli. I can’t get enough of the stuff.” He put two little clear plastic containers next to the sandwich. The liquid was thin and jet black.
Frank observed the sandwich. The bun was already soggy from the pineapple slices. The critics had been right about that, he noted. He took out his phone again. Gordon smiled and then leaned his body away from the frame. “There she blows,” Frank typed out, invoking Melville once again. He pressed send and put the phone on the table face down. It immediately started to rattle and shimmy toward the edge. Frank took a deep breath and closed his eyes.
“This is a big moment for you,” Gordon said solemnly.
“Twelve years. Twenty-three thousand miles. Fifty thousand followers," Frank recounted. "Can I ask you, something?"
"If you were reading my feed and you knew that I was looking for this sandwich, why didn't you call me sooner?"
Gordon smiled. He tore off a bit of waffle fry and put it in his mouth, chewing deliberately. "Well, I supposed I could have done that, but it would have been a little too easy. Don't you think? I didn't want to deprive you of the journey."
Frank opened his eyes and turned his head toward the window. It was starting to snow.
“Have you thought about what you’re going to do next?" Gordon asked. "Now that you've reached the end of your list, I mean."
Frank watched the lights of traffic slide past on the interstate beyond the parked cars and the fifty-foot glowing sign and the fueling station and the tower of dirty snow and the bare oak trees. He thought about the drive home, his one-bedroom apartment with its few pieces of prefabricated Swedish plywood furniture, his job managing logistics for an office supply outlet. He thought about Gordon building his empire of Arby's. Finally, Frank turned back to the man sitting across from him. “I don’t know yet. I guess I’ll need to figure that out.”
Gordon sighed and smiled understandingly. “You’ll have time for that later, I suppose. What's important is that we've got these Mahalo Kings." Gordon picked up his sandwich and held it aloft triumphantly, urging Frank to do the same. "For now, let's just savor the moment."