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Triple Hug
by Jim McInvale

Once again, ZZ country store won by default. We work in the shadow of a cooling tower, and are banished to the boonies where the other lunch options are, in order of preference: vending machines, road kill, and our plant cafeteria, The Stomach Pump Cafe. Even engineers shun “The Pump” and besides, we were celebrating. One of our own had jumped the fence - Randy Dan landed a job back east.

This was a bittersweet occasion so we’d reverted to adolescent behavior and were bantering like tenth-graders cutting class when I turned onto route ZZ. Our companions passed with horn blaring and I looked left in time to see a pair of buttocks pressed against a window looking back at me. Both vehicles pulled into a gravel lot down the road and seven of us spilled out, still howling over the midday moon. We went in and made for a picnic table down at the service bay end.

The waitress/head mechanic came up, pulled menus from her coveralls, and passed them around. Randy Dan, sitting across from me, silenced the room with his order.

“Triple hug.”

ZZ country store is locally known for the hug burger. Its name originated from a semi-literate misspelling of “huge”, and it has a simple recipe: squash a double handful of ground beef into a plate-sized circle and drop it in a vat of boiling lard. Cook for two minutes; nestle between slabs of bread, and slather with mayonnaise. Finally, serve it on a hubcap with a shovel full of potato wedges.

A double scares off most diners; a triple is insanity. The waitress’s jaw dropped and her gold tooth gleamed.

“You’re joking?”

She didn’t know RD like I did. She twice offered him a chance to back down, then shook her head and walked off muttering something about his next bowel movement. Table talk resumed and betting broke out.

When the waitress heaved RD’s order up on the table, it hid everything but the hair atop his big mid-western mug. I worked my burger and watched RD’s face rise slowly above a diminishing mountain. A hush fell near the end - like a bowling alley when someone is closing on a 300 game - and a roar arose when he downed the last bite, but RD was too smitten to celebrate. He looked fragile. I collected his winnings - afraid he’d erupt if he moved.

The waitress took our hubcaps back to the carwash, but we stayed to let the hero recover and spent the time building his legend (and arguing over who would ride back with him). Though RD trembled like Vesuvius, he never blew, and we finally went back to work.

Later, I stopped in his cube with the winnings, but a toxic cloud drove me back out. I tossed the cash on his desk and shouted. RD sat unconscious at his computer - victim of a food-induced coma.

“Hey man– you’re making a big carbon footprint.”

The lids flickered. RD yawned and chuckled.

“There’s your cash.” I pointed to the desk. “Was it worth it? That could’ve killed you.”

He leaned left and grimaced before answering. I backed further into the aisle.

“You know”, he said, “… when it’s my time, I’d like a big hug goodbye.”