Contest #173 shortlist ⭐️

How to Return a Half-Eaten Cheeseburger From 1997

Submitted into Contest #173 in response to: Write about a character going to great lengths to return an unwanted gift.... view prompt

63 comments

American Romance

2006  

You’re still there, right where I left you, wrapped up in the yellow wax paper blanket that keeps you warm against the ice-cold breath of the refrigerator. Even now, I still worry about you. In those sudden frantic moments that I cannot immediately locate you, I tear apart my refrigerator, pushing aside the tubs of low-fat yogurt and bottles of diet Snapple, until I find you, my one and only cheeseburger, tucked away in some icy, back corner, breathing in whatever years, days, seconds you have left of your precious, predetermined shelf life. 


In fact, today is your birthday. I hesitate to do the math, but I must. You are nine in human years, eighty in burger years. You were supposed to rot over by now, surrender to the bacterial clutches of time. Yet the deathly amount of preservatives running through your system has, like Botox, imbued you with the illusion of youth. You will last forever for all I know. Maybe you will even outlive me. No matter how many times my wife lectures me to make you disappear, I cannot bring myself to say goodbye. 


For one, I have no idea how I would get rid of you. A cheeseburger like you belongs somewhere better than in the hollows of my stomach; and the uneaten half that remains of your juicy carnage belongs somewhere much more special than trapped between my molars. You deserve to travel first class—not through the claustrophobic tubes of my intestinal track. Besides, we have gotten to a point where I can no longer eat you, because, once I do, we will both cease to exist. 


My wife makes the ludicrous recommendation to simply throw you away. Recommendation is a euphemism; it is closer to a demand. Lately she’s become more adamant about getting rid of you. It’s either me or her, she says in her sharp, jealous voice. I appreciate her consideration in, at the very least, giving you the dignity of a third person singular pronoun. It proves that, at the very least, she knows how special you are to me—perhaps even more special than she is to me.


But I decide it’s time to let you go—I just do not yet know how. To my wife, you are nothing but an unwanted house guest. And the only thing worse than being a fifty-one-year-old man with a nine-year-old cheeseburger in his fridge is being a divorced fifty-one-year-old man with a nine-year-old cheeseburger in his fridge. 


I run through my options and decide that there’s only one respectful way to get rid of you. 


I must return you to where you came from. 


***


1997

There are many signs that someone is in love with you.


They speak about your future. 


They bring you around important people in their life. 


But perhaps the most telltale sign is when, midway through devouring a hot, juicy cheeseburger, they have an epiphany. With juice running down their face, and their stomach still growling, something strange happens. Love overcomes their insaitable hunger and they decide to save you a piece. They would not do this for anyone else on this planet, and that is a fact. They wrap up what remains of their half-eaten meal and bring it to you as a greasy token of their affection.


Perhaps that is why I’m so touched when my wife gifts me a brown paper bag full of half-eaten food, gently plopping it on my lap as I lie on the couch watching reruns of Twin Peaks. It does not matter that her mouth has already touched it. Our mouths have already touched many times before.  


I save the half-eaten cheeseburger in the fridge for later. Perhaps for later that night or later that week. But soon, later that week has turned into later that month and later that month has turned into later that year. Grief has made it difficult for me to eat. I subsist on mainly ginger ale and microwavable soups until I work my way up to more solid foods and eventually a second wife. Still, I cannot bring myself to eat it. The ragged bite marks that generously stop exaclty halfway through the burger make me believe that their owner is still somewhere alive and breathing. I do not know how I could possibly dispose of it either. There is no thrift shop that accepts food or any sacred, golden garbage can for sentimental objects you can neither keep nor trash. 


I resort to leaving it in my fridge. Over time, it becomes you and I do everything in my power to protect you from getting smashed by second wife’s stupid health foods that think they’re oh-so-much better than you. Goody-two-shoes Gala apples obnoxiously wearing their I’m organic! stickers. Jugs of dark green vegetable sludge lined up like stone-faced, disciplined soldiers. You begin to feel inferior and hide your rotting, sodium-fraught body in far-off corners, away from the spotlight of the refrigerator bulb. All I can do is assure you that you are still, and will always be, my one and only.


***


2006

The fast-food joint is crowded. I should not have come in on a Friday, but second wife has left me no other option.


However, the cashier currently working looks trustworthy enough, and I determine he is someone I can leave you with.


As I wait in line, I look down at you through the clear Ziploc coffin I’ve placed you in. The persistent deep fryer alarms go off around us. The fryers spit hot grease onto the skin of underpaid cooks. I open the bag and lift your sesame seed bun, just to see you one last time. Even as I betray you, you still smile back at me with your mouth made of Heinz. Your half-eaten eyes made of pickles look sadder than usual, but I tell myself it is just the underdeveloped mold colony clouding your vision. 


When I get to the front, the cashier calls me champ and asks what he can get for me. Being called something as grand and comically unfitting as champ makes me feel small and stupid, even more so than I already did. Perhaps that is how you feel at this moment as well.


As I struggle for my words, I try to explain to him that I would like to return a purchase. That I do not have a receipt nor a reason for my return. That I simply need to leave my half-eaten cheeseburger somewhere safe, like a baby I can no longer properly care for. 


He mechanically apologizes for my dissatisfaction, and I telepathically assure you that I am returning you for no such reason. Do not listen to this guy, I tell you. He does not know what he is talking about. You are not a substandard product or fall short of my expectations, as he puts it.


As an impatient line grows behind me, my palms begin to sweat. I am no champ. Just a middle-aged man with a half-eaten cheeseburger in his shaking hands. In desperation, I go to great lengths to explain my situation to him without having to explain my situation at all. I lie and tell him that, halfway through eating this cheeseburger, an oracle was delivered to me. It was delivered via the image of a calf eating grass on TV. I've since converted to veganism and, for that reason, I must return you.


But he refuses to confiscate you from me and politely declines my return on the basis that you are a biohazard. He offers me a refund and a free non-meat item of my choice from the menu instead, but that is not what I want. 


I end up on a bench outside, defeated, with your cold, almost-lifeless body in my hands. I take you home and put you back in my fridge.


However, the next time I check on you, I do not have to frantically search for you. The V8 bottles are gone and so are the pre-portioned meal prep tubs of lean beef and carrots that probably fill second wife’s workplace with the obnoxious stench of preparedness.


Standing alone now in my underwear, I peel back your crinkly packaging to make sure you are okay. The green digits on my microwave say 2:06 in the morning. The refrigerator hums against the stillness, and the refrigerator bulb is the only thing illuminating my dark, empty kitchen.


We have both been left to rot alone, but at least you're still there, right where I left you.

November 24, 2022 23:13

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63 comments

Daniel Allen
15:15 Nov 27, 2022

This is such a beautiful story. The imagery is so powerful and vivid, and you manage to play on our heartstrings masterfully. I think we all can relate to keeping an item, not for what it is, but for what it represents. But you don't stop there. You take us one step further and explore how the shadows of a past relationship can reach into the present. Fantastic work!

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Liv Chocolate
02:52 Nov 28, 2022

Thank you so much, Daniel! What you said sums it up perfectly--"how the shadows of a past relationship can reach into the present."

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Lindsay Flo
18:37 Dec 02, 2022

Congrats on the shortlist!! Okay first things first...I truly thought this was going to be a funny comedy type of a story, and I was unprepared for the wallop. In one paragraph, using the words grief and wife, you clearly manage to paint the picture of a man who hasn't been able to move on from the love of his life. Normally, when something is vague, I want more details, but in this case its not necessary to understand how much he loved his wife, how much he still grieves for her. I also think it's poignant portrayal of the strange and unpre...

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Liv Chocolate
20:07 Dec 03, 2022

Thank you, Lindsay! And yes, you nailed it - I was definitely going for a mix between absurd humor and tragedy. I totally get the wanting more details part, I'm glad it didn't take away from the story for you, though. Backstory is probably the hardest part about fiction in my opinion. I really admire those who can weave it in so seamlessly.

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Zelda C. Thorne
19:04 Dec 11, 2022

Wonderful story. I went from being amused and intrigued to heartbroken... All over a burger! Congratulations on the shortlist 🙂

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Liv Chocolate
22:37 Dec 11, 2022

Thank you very much, Zelda!

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Teagan Wheeler
20:36 Dec 09, 2022

I love this! Originally I saw it as a humorous comedy about that abandoned hamburger in the back of the fridge, only to see a heartbreaking story about grief and divorce. Beautifully written!

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P. Beard
17:35 Dec 08, 2022

Super clever and poignant! The other writers have captured so well in their comments what I was thinking when I read it (such a familiar feeling, that!) I particularly am impressed by the POV first-person male voice, as it feels like only a man would do this. Nicely done! :)

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Liv Chocolate
21:10 Dec 08, 2022

Thank you very much! 🥲 your comment means a lot

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Mira E
17:53 Dec 06, 2022

<3 nice

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Liv Chocolate
05:58 Dec 07, 2022

thank you!

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Kevin Broccoli
16:24 Dec 06, 2022

I wish I could borrow your creativity just for a day. Sometimes when I read something like this, I remember that great writing is about leaving no stone unturned in terms of narrative opportunity and your language is always on a steady incline until you reach the conclusion. Well done.

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Liv Chocolate
05:58 Dec 07, 2022

That means a lot coming fm you Kevin. Your creative powers already know no end This comment made my night! Thank you so much

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Tommy Goround
18:35 Dec 02, 2022

3peat. Clappping.

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Liv Chocolate
19:59 Dec 03, 2022

Thank you!

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18:02 Dec 02, 2022

Seriously good.

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Liv Chocolate
19:59 Dec 03, 2022

Thank you, Lester!

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Claire Harding
01:36 Dec 02, 2022

A beautifully written piece with lush and provocative sentences that carry you right along to the end. The clever and lovable character has a case of Synaesthesia, but he wouldn't have it any other way! Well done!

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Liv Chocolate
01:44 Dec 02, 2022

Thank you very much, Claire! 💜 🍔 😃

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Michał Przywara
21:43 Dec 01, 2022

So - and I think you know this - the title is fantastic. Very eye-catching. The story seizes that momentum and delivers, too. It's a lovely mix of comical and heartbreaking. Comical on the surface, with deep, sad undercurrents. Much like the burger. It's a burger on the surface, superficially, but that's irrelevant - it's what it means that matters. A last physical connection to the original wife. Throw it out, and she's really dead. Some wounds run so deep we can't move past them, and they continue to haunt our lives. In this case, the ...

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Liv Chocolate
01:41 Dec 02, 2022

Michael - I can't explain how much your thoughtful analysis means to me. You nailed it - every 👏 single 👏 intention I had when writing this. This makes me so, so happy. Especially consdering who it's coming from. I think we can all agree Pryzwara is among the most recongizable Reedsy names we've all grown to love and eagerly expect more stories from . . . Broccoli, Lovegren, and Walker, just to name a few. *recollects from starstruck* But where was I. I'm so happy to know the sad uncurrent didn't get lost under the absurdity of it all. I...

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Michał Przywara
21:42 Dec 02, 2022

"if understood counts as a state of emotion" definitely :) The absurd came out well, though maybe I'm biased as I like absurd things anyway. It gives rise to funny/sad, which is a conflicting set of emotions, and that fits perfectly for a narrator whose emotions are in turmoil. Looking forward to reading more of your stories :) Also, congrats on the shortlist!

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Antonio Jimenez
16:22 Dec 01, 2022

This is awesome! I genuinely enjoyed every minute I was reading this story. It was funny but also touching. I found myself feeling sorry for the man and disliking the second wife. This is perfect. I would love for you to check out my profile and maybe leave some feedback on my newest story. Thanks!

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Liv Chocolate
20:48 Dec 01, 2022

Thank you, Antonio! And so happy you disliked second wife. That's exactly what I was going for by having the narrator refer to her as simply "second wife." And of course! Would love to read it

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Marty B
05:56 Nov 30, 2022

I really like this line' The refrigerator hums against the stillness, and the refrigerator bulb is the only thing illuminating my dark, empty kitchen.' like the Ambrose Bierce quote: 'Patience, n. A minor form of despair, disguised as a virtue.'

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Liv Chocolate
20:07 Nov 30, 2022

Thank you so much, Marty! I think I had to rewrite that line about three or more times before I was happy w it. I love that quote. I'm going to need to add Bierce to my reading list.

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Joey Ratajczak
15:48 Nov 29, 2022

Great story, Liv! This was such a great balance of comedy and heartbreak, and it had such a fun voice! I also really admire how you were able to make me feel sympathetic for a rotting half-eaten burger. That's amazing.

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Liv Chocolate
02:26 Nov 30, 2022

Thank you very much, Joey! 🍔

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Edward Latham
08:41 Nov 29, 2022

You made this cheeseburger sound suitably gross! But the pure outrageousness of the idea he's had it for 9 years was great and you had a really strong narrator voice in this one too. Nice work

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Liv Chocolate
02:27 Nov 30, 2022

😃 🍔 thank you, Edward!!

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03:56 Nov 29, 2022

Honey, liquor and uncooked rice. I had to look up what traditional foods would stay fresh indefinitely.. Very nice.

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Liv Chocolate
07:51 Nov 29, 2022

Thank you! And yes, his honey probably should've left him some honey instead 🍯!!

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Aeris Walker
20:45 Nov 28, 2022

Hilarious and heartbreaking all at the same time. Your writing style is so smooth and engaging, and this idea is as original as it gets. Well done!

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Liv Chocolate
22:54 Nov 28, 2022

Thank you, Aeris! That is a huge compliment coming from someone who's the master of smooth and engaging prose 📝

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Susan Catucci
19:51 Nov 28, 2022

Hahahaha - you're amazing. You actually pulled this off! In the beginning, I thought, no, this can't work. Just using the word "cheeseburger," this can't possibly draw me in. This is about sentimentality revolving around fast food? Well, I was wrong and shame on me and never say never. I admit it. By the end, I felt the same affection and concern that the burger still be there - please still be there.

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Liv Chocolate
22:59 Nov 28, 2022

Love it! Thank you, Susan 💜 Anthromorphizing everyday objects is an interesting phenomenon - why do we do it? Why do we see faces in everyday objects? Interesting article you might enjoy reading: https://www.humanfutures.studio/articles/why-do-people-anthropomorphize Thanks again for reading 📖 💚

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Susan Catucci
23:57 Nov 28, 2022

Thanks much, Liv - I definitely will! You are a fun read!

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Simone Sherron
16:49 Nov 28, 2022

Very beautifully written piece really comes to life!

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Liv Chocolate
22:51 Nov 28, 2022

Thank you, Simone! 💜 so happy you enjoyed

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Jennifer Cameron
11:08 Nov 28, 2022

I loved this story so much, when I started reading, I had no idea how it was going to finish and this was beautiful.

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Liv Chocolate
22:53 Nov 28, 2022

Thank you, Jennifer! Predictable endings are one of my biggest fears, so I'm glad it wasn't the case!

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